Equality and justice represented a core theme of the 2020 presidential campaign. While all candidates are obviously in favor of reducing crime, the policies and rhetoric from the candidates varied significantly.
After swearing into office on January 20, President-Elect Joe Biden will attempt to implement bold reforms to criminal justice and drug policies. The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice is based on four core principles:
- Reduce incarcerations while reducing crime.
- Root out racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the criminal justice system.
- Focus on redemption and rehabilitation.
- Eliminate any profiteering off the criminal justice system.
Let’s discuss what criminal justice and drug policy reform could look like under the Biden Administration.
A Shift in Focus from Incarceration to Prevention
Candidate Biden took a lot of heat on the campaign trail for the 1994 crime bill, which he spearheaded as a U.S. Senator. This law is now widely viewed as a failed approach to criminal justice that caused mass incarceration and was particularly harsh and unfair to people of color and the poor.
For example, the law included a “three strikes” provision that resulted in long sentences for convicts with three offenses, even if those offenses were relatively minor.
The new Biden Plan will prioritize crime prevention by addressing factors that contribute to crime. This involves investing in pre-K education and offering grants to states that take steps to reduce incarceration rates.
Another key component of the Biden Administration’s proposed reform package includes an expansion of federal funding for mental health and substance use disorder services and research. Making treatment available to more people can not only prevent crime, but also rehabilitate those who commit crimes instead of sending them to prison.
The Biden Plan promises to train law enforcement officers to de-escalate situations involving people in severe emotional stress. Instead of arresting someone who might be behaving erratically, for example, because of a mental health disorder or drug problem, police can work social workers and substance use disorder experts to get individuals the help they need.
Drug Policy Reforms Proposed Under the Biden Plan
The Biden Plan would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level and incentivize states to do the same.
Although the Obama-Biden Administration narrowed the federal disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, the Biden Plan promises to completely eliminate the disparity and apply the change retroactively.
Supporting the trend towards the decriminalization of marijuana, President-Elect Biden believes marijuana use should not be penalized with a jail sentence. The Biden Plan would decriminalize marijuana use, automatically expunge prior convictions, and support legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Decisions about legalization for recreational use would be left to the states.
Beyond marijuana, the Biden Plan would end incarceration for drug use alone. Instead of sending drug users to prison, they would be sent to drug courts for treatment and rehabilitation. Funding for alternatives to detention courts, such as veterans courts and youth offenders courts, would be expanded.
President-Elect Biden would also use his clemency power to secure the release of people serving unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug-related crimes.
By ending cash bail and stopping the practice of jailing people who are unable to pay fines and fees, the Biden Plan would seek to end discrimination and the criminalization of poverty in our criminal justice system.
Supporting the core principle of redemption, the Biden Plan would offer those who have paid their debt every opportunity to return to and become a productive member of society.
To ensure every incarcerated individual has a second chance, the Biden Administration will look to provide housing, expand access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and offer educational opportunities and job training. The Biden Plan would also remove barriers that keep previously incarcerated individuals from accessing public assistance resources.
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