Criminal-Justice Reform Was a Key Part of President Biden’s Campaign. Here’s How He’s Done So Far

During his campaign for the Oval Office, President Joe Biden made criminal-justice reform a focal point, calling out many problems with the system: over-incarceration, a lack of focus on redemption and rehabilitation, racial and socioeconomic disparities, “urban gun violence,” and more.

Criminal-justice professionals give Biden a mixed score when it comes to converting those promises into realities, just over a year after his first term began. During his State of Union address on March 1—which happened to be the first day of National Criminal Justice Month—Biden didn’t have much to say about criminal justice reform. When he did speak about criminal justice issues, he primarily focused on calls to “defund the police,” which Biden pushed back against, arguing that the police in fact need more funding. (This is a position about which he’s been very consistent.)
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“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities,” Biden said during his address to the country, garnering applause from both sides of the aisle.


He has either kept his promise to criminal justice reform or tried. The Build Back Better plan proposed that $5 billion be used to fund community violence intervention programs. This was in the hope of funding training, grant research and data collection to prevent gun-violence on the ground. These funds are in addition the millions of dollars that law enforcement receives. The Senate has resisted the Build Back better plan.

In terms of tackling gun violence, he’s made noteworthy investments for community-led initiatives. The American Rescue Plan allows $350 billion to be used for local and state funding. This money can go towards community violence intervention programs.

Continue reading: ‘Enough is Enough.’ Meeting New York City Mayor, Biden Pledges Progress in Fight Against Gun Violence

He’s also nominated 75 people to federal courts, with 40 of them confirmed. According to the Alliance for Justice, more than 60% of his nominees were of color, and 75% were women. He also stated that he wanted diversity in the ranks of those who enforce the justice systems. He presided over 37 U.S. Nominated attorneys have included 20 Black and 13 female lawyers. Before Biden’s presidency, women of color only made up 4% of sitting federal judges. He’s nominated 31 women of color for federal judge positions in his first year, compared to two for former President Trump and nine for former President Obama.

Biden stated that he would abolish the federal death penalty while on the campaign trail. It hasn’t been abolished, but there is currently an interim moratorium. The Supreme Court reinstated Dzhokhar Takaran Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon Bomber, with a death sentence.

Another one of his promises included ending the federal government’s reliance on private prisons. Biden ordered the Department of Justice to not renew private facility contracts in 2021. However, the same facilities can still be used by federal detention centers.

“I think given the difficult political atmosphere that Biden has navigated, he’s had some modest success addressing criminal justice issues,” Thomas Abt, a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice, tells TIME. “I think you have to look carefully at what he can do through executive action and what he can’t do. You can only really hold him responsible for the things that he could do through executive action.”

Stealled Out

However, others believe Biden has a special duty to reform the justice system and that there is still much to be done.

“Biden has a unique responsibility regarding criminal-justice reform, given his large role in creating and crafting a lot of the policies that got us in this mess in the first place,” says Ojmarrh Mitchell, a criminal-justice professor at Arizona State University.

Mitchell is alluding to the many policies and positions Biden took on criminal-justice policy as a Senator in the ’80s and ’90s—most notably his role in the 1994 Crime Bill, which many argue led to the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people across the country.

“Joe Biden is not a regular president when it comes to justice issues. He is a President who has a long history of being in favor of the most draconian and racially biased policies we’ve seen in decades,” Mitchell says. “He has a greater responsibility to right the wrong.”

According to the President, he will rework clemency and make it available for both non-violent offenders as well as those who are incarcerated for drug crimes. Biden has never pardoned or commuted any person. U.S. The U.S. Sentenncing Commission is a federal agency that helps to address and govern disparities in federal court cases. Biden hasn’t nominated any person for this commission. Reducing the prison population was supposed to be another priority in Biden’s administration; there has not been much follow-through on that: The prison population is at around 1.8 million and while there was a period of decarceration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, that has since stalled.

And David Chipman—Biden’s pick to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—did not make it through tense confirmation hearings, leaving the agency leaderless and underfunded. Despite his progress on gun violence, some experts and advocates would like to see Biden appoint a gun-violence political leader or “czar” to oversee the Administration’s efforts to address the problem.

“If you’re going to make this major investment and the money eventually comes through, you need to have White House leadership to make sure that it’s done right,” Abt says. “A czar position can really harmonize the administration’s various efforts on gun violence.”

Continue reading: Why the Federal Firearms Agency Can’t Find a Permanent Director

Perhaps the most notable failure of criminal-justice reform in the past year, however, has been the George Floyd Policing Act‘s not passing through the Senate. Though this was not Biden’s fault, he did promise to put together a police oversight committee or “task force”—which could have the power to address excessive policing and hold law enforcement more accountable —but that hasn’t come to fruition either. Biden could set up an oversight committee, without needing to go through Congress.

And then there’s the matter of “defund.”

“I think he’s it’s been very politically savvy on [the police] issue,” Arizona’s Mitchell says. “He’s talking about police reform but he’s not talking about it in the more radical ways that Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movement have been talking about it.”

So, looking to Biden’s second year in office and beyond, experts like Mitchell are focusing on not only the successes the President has accomplished but also on his ability to do more.

“He’s made some progress that shouldn’t be minimized,” Mitchell says, “but there’s so much more he could accomplish if he made criminal-justice reform an urgent part of his administration.”


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