The promise — and peril — of Biden’s criminal justice reform platform
We discuss Biden's plans for clemency, reentry support, drug courts, and juvenile justice reform.
by Wanda Bertram, November 13, 2020
During his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden released a long criminal justice reform platform with many laudable goals, and he is now in a position to begin translating those goals into policy. Of course, Biden won’t be president until late January, but his hard work of preparing to govern begins now.
As he prepares to take office, it’s important to be aware that the success of some of Biden’s criminal justice goals will hinge on how he implements them. It is all too easy for lawmakers to apply their energy for criminal justice reform in ways that will fail to make a dent or that actually reinforce mass incarceration. For example, Biden has proposed to:
- Use the president’s clemency power to release people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. A president willing to use clemency in a broad, sweeping manner could significantly reduce the federal prison population — without needing to consult Congress. But if President-elect Biden spends too much time reviewing clemency applications to avoid all possible risk, it’s unlikely that he will make a big impact. To understand why, recall President Obama’s record on clemency: Obama created a bold clemency initiative, but also created unnecessary layers of administrative oversight that led to most applications being denied or “set aside.” In 2016, we wrote about the more efficient ways that a president can use the power of clemency.
- End all incarceration for drug use alone, and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment. Almost half of all people in federal prisons are there for drug offenses. But sending more people to drug courts — alternative courts that mix supervision with treatment — actually runs contrary to Biden’s goal of ending incarceration for drug use. Why? Because drug courts are still overseen by judges, who frequently throw people back in jail for failing to keep up with stringent requirements. Moreover, prison sentences for people convicted of drug possession are typically not long to begin with. As a result, the Drug Policy Alliance found, drug courts don’t significantly reduce incarceration. To end incarceration for drug use, focus on reducing drug possession enforcement overall – not just modifying the way drug users are punished.
- “End the school to prison pipeline” by doubling the number of mental health professionals in schools. The school to prison pipeline is a national disgrace, but its roots go far beyond a shortage of counselors in schools. High arrest rates in schools have also been linked with high-stakes testing regimes, overworked teachers, and the presence of police officers in schools (often called “School Resource Officers”). In fact, schools that retain police officers on campus have arrest rates 5 times higher than schools without those officers. If a Biden administration funds new mental health programs to reduce arrests in schools, it should pair this funding with general support for cash-strapped classrooms — and a reduction in the number of School Resource Officers — to see real results.
- Ensure that people leaving prison have housing, by expanding funding for halfway houses. Biden is correct to prioritize housing for formerly incarcerated people to increase health and safety. But halfway houses (as we explained in our guide to understanding them) are nothing like normal housing. They are a step down from prison, and most residents are required to be there as a condition of their parole. Halfway houses have staff who control when residents can come and go, and they are often run by the same private prison companies that Biden wants to purge from the criminal justice system. A halfway house is not a housing plan for someone leaving prison. To guarantee that formerly incarcerated people have stable homes, the government should invest in voluntary transitional housing, affordable housing in gentrifying areas, and permanent housing for the homeless.
- Use grants to encourage states to place “non-violent” youth in community-based alternatives to prison. This proposal is one of a number of programs in Biden’s plan that applies to “non-violent offenders” only. But the labels “violent” and “non-violent” are nebulous ones, imposed by the criminal justice system, and conceal important parts of every individual’s personal history. Especially for youth, there is no need to means-test criminal justice reform by automatically excluding anyone with the “violent” label in their paperwork. As we explained in Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie, community-based consequences are more effective than incarceration for youth charged with all kinds of offenses, including violent ones.
As we keep our eyes on the Biden administration’s action on criminal justice reform, it’s important to remember that state prisons and local jails incarcerate vastly more people than federal facilities do. Local and state lawmakers don’t need to wait for the White House to make much-needed law and policy changes.
But the president still has a great deal of power — through executive orders, cabinet appointments, policy guidance, and the bully pulpit — to reshape the criminal justice system. In fact, the legacies of past presidents (such as the Clinton administration) are clearer than ever right now as crowded prisons enable COVID-19 to spread like wildfire. The Biden administration needs to get to work immediately to prevent more COVID-19 deaths behind bars, reduce the prison population, and help people leaving prison reenter society safely, and it’s important that the administration allocate its energy in the right places. There is no time to waste.