Joe Biden said he wouldn't jail non-violent criminals and ridicule followed, but the former VP has a point

The Democratic presidential aspirant has been ridiculed and also seen with suspicion over his take to reduce the menace of high incarceration rate in the US but his message has a substance.

                            Joe Biden said he wouldn't jail non-violent criminals and ridicule followed, but the former VP has a point
Joe Biden (Getty Images)

Joe Biden's run for the presidential nomination in the Democratic camp has not been smooth. The 76-year-old former vice president has faced a steep challenge in a crowded race in his party over diverse issues. However, as he met his nine opponents in the third debate in Houston on Thursday, September 12, Biden came up with a far better show. He got the longest duration to speak and even as he looked unconvincing on occasions, it was seen as a night he made an impressive mark despite almost losing his teeth at one point.

During the debate, Biden came up with an ear-catching statement about people in jail for committing nonviolent crimes. The septuagenarian argued that people who have done white-collar crimes should not be locked up in jails. For some, it was a big statement from a man who in the past was known for his support for mass incarceration. For some others, it was another reason to ridicule the veteran as they said Biden was planning to free President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is currently in prison for committing various white-collar offenses. One aide of Biden even qualified the latter’s words while talking to a media outlet, saying he was speaking only about "non-violent drug crimes."

Biden’s remark opposing mass incarceration has brought the focus back on his criminal justice reform plan, something which is being widely discussed in this pre-election season. In July, Biden unveiled his comprehensive criminal justice reform plan and in it, he vowed to decrease incarceration, reform policing and change the focus from incarceration to a more social support mechanism for people who are at risk of committing such crimes. 

Though his comprehensive plan during the campaign may have a humanitarian quest, there are still voices that refuse to see any merit in it. The reason is Biden’s complete reversal on the subject from his position in the past (1980s and 1990s) when the American political establishment -- irrespective of party colors -- took a tough position on crime, the biggest menace for the country during that time.

Today, the Democratic Party’s position on criminal justice issues has undergone a U-turn and when Biden is trying to align himself with that new position, he is being dubbed as someone inconsistent and hence less morally capable of leading the country.

Biden’s involvement in the Comprehensive Control Act of 1984 and support for Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 -- two punitive legislations that saw a surge in jail population continues to chase him in 2019. The man, however, persists in trying to dismantle his legacy in a bid to win the black voters, the same ones his legislations had hurt in the past. It could do the prospects of defeating Trump next year a real favor. 

But putting politics aside, does Biden’s call for ending jailing of non-violent criminals really deserve a ridicule? 

More than 2.2 million behind bars

Mass incarceration leading to overcrowded jails has become a major problem for the United States. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the country tops the table in terms of incarceration rate. The number of people behind bars is 2.2 million (as of 2016) and that makes America the home of 25 percent of the world’s prisoners while it has only five percent of the population living on this planet. The center also cited findings by researchers that 39 percent of the prisoners, around 600,000, do not need to be behind bars for public safety reasons. Besides, there are people who have overstayed in confinement and deserve to be released safely.

Comparison with other countries, including neighbors

According to a report in the Prison Policy Initiative, the only country that comes close to the US in terms of incarceration rate is Turkmenistan (552 per 100,000 people as against America's 700). Turkmenistan's prison population is still around 30,000. Canada has a prison population of only 41,000 and incarceration rate of 114 people per 100,000. Mexico, the southern neighbor, has 200,000 people in prison and has a rate of 164 per 100,000. Countries like the Netherlands and Japan have incarceration rates of only 59 and 41 people per 100,000, respectively.

Vera Institute of Justice in a blog titled ‘Ending Mass Incarceration’ wrote: “Mass incarceration is not just a problem of scale. We’re committed to improving conditions behind bars in ways that affirm the dignity of incarcerated men and women and unleash their potential, and that create healthier working environments for the corrections officers and other professionals who also spend their days in prison or jail.”

It also added that bringing mass incarceration to an end needs fashioning rational and fair consequences. 

Vera Institute’s reports on trends in sentencing and corrections show that states are already taking the challenge head on. It also mentioned about the practices that Europe follows in punishing offenders and stressed the importance of exchanges between American and European officials on what works more effectively on the issue of correcting offenders. 

ACLU's suggestions to deal with incarceration

American CivilLiberties Union that voices concerns over issues related to individual rights and liberties also feels strongly against mass incarceration. It also suggested a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the problem and cited that many states have already embarked on the path to reduce their prison populations. It said the same is needed at the federal level as that will cater to the ideas of public safety, fiscal responsibility and justice. 

In April this year, the New York Times reported that the number of people put in prisons in the US came down slightly in 2017, as per the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, but the country is still home to the largest known incarcerated population in the world. 

Although the prison population in the US came down in 2017, experts felt the current criminal justice reforms are happening at snail's pace. (Getty Images)

Noted criminal law expert at New York University School of Law Rachel Barkow told NYT in a tone of pessimism that if the US kept on working on the kind of criminal justice reforms as it is doing now, it will take another 75 years to slice the jailed population by half. She said it was good to see the reforms happening but felt it was too modest at the moment to make any significant transformation.

As per the NYT report, a little less than 1.5 million people were living behind the bars by the end of 2017, marking a slight fall than 2016 but still a figure big enough to make one of the largest cities in the US. It said county and city jails accommodated around 750,000 inmates in mid-2017.

Crime down but prison population still high

Th crime rate in the US has fallen over the past few decades but still the country continues to have a high prison population. It is true that the numbers have reduced a bit, as said earlier, but that reduction has more to do with policy changes than any direct relation between fall in crime and prison population.  

But will Biden’s prescription of not jailing non-violent criminals be sufficient to solve the overall problem? The federal report added that by the end of 2016, more than half of the prisoners in states were convicted of violent crimes although the overall violent crime rate has come down drastically since the 1990s. This takes us to the conclusion that the prison population will not just go down impressively if only the non-violent offenders, which Barkow refers to as “low hanging fruit”,  are addressed. 

Biden’s call is a populist one no doubt but is still worth considering seriously.

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