President-elect Joe Biden's criminal justice reform proposals: More effective on paper than reality?

President-elect Joe Biden's criminal justice reform proposals: More effective on paper than reality?
President-elect Joe Biden (Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden released during his campaign for this year’s election a criminal justice reform plan that included many high goals. After having defeated incumbent President Donald Trump, the former vice president has now found himself in a position to give wings to the policy goals once he takes over as the 46th president in January. Will the Democratic leader’s reform plans taste success?

Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), recently came up with an article reviewing Biden’s criminal justice reform goals and to what extent those goals have a realistic chance to succeed.  The PPI piece took up five of Biden’s proposals to call for criminal justice reform and here they are:

Using the president’s clemency power to release those convicted of non-violent drug crimes
According to PPI, the commander-in-chief who looks to use the clemency power for a broad sweep could reduce the rising population in federal prison significantly, without requiring to consult the Congress. However, Bertram asked that if Biden spends too much time reviewing clemency applications as the president, it is unlikely that he will make a substantial 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”,” it said.

Putting an end to all incarceration for drug use only and send individuals instead to drug courts and for treatment
Federal prisons are full of people who are there mainly for drug offenses. According to the PPI article, sending more people to drug courts does not solve the problem and runs contrary to the incoming president’s goal of putting an end to incarceration for drug use. To explain, judges who often send people back in jail for failing to keep up with strict requirements oversee the drug courts. “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,” it added.

Shutting the “school to prison pipeline” by doubling the number of mental health professionals
The PPI piece acknowledged that the school to prison pipeline is a national disgrace but also said a shortage of counselors in schools is not the only reason. High rates of arrests in schools have also been linked with high-stakes testing regimes, overburdened teachers and presence of cops in schools (called school resource officers). The analysis said if the incoming Biden administration funds new mental health programs to lessen arrests in schools, it should also focus on support for cash-strapped classrooms and reducing the number of school resource officers.

Ensuring people exiting prison have housing by extending funds for halfway houses
The PPI piece backed Biden for prioritizing housing for people who were incarcerated earlier, for better health and safety. But it said halfway houses are far away from normal housings and can not be a housing plan for somebody who is leaving the jail. It said to ensure formerly incarcerated people a stable home, the government should spend behind voluntary transitional housing, housing in gentrifying areas that are affordable as well as permanent housing for the homeless. 

Using grants to motivate states to put “non-violent” youth in community-based alternatives than in prison

Biden has proposed this exclusively for “non-violent offenders” but according to the PPI piece, the terms “violent” and “non-violent” are vague and imposed by the criminal justice system, hiding key parts of every individual’s personal history. It said community-based consequences are more effective than imprisonment in cases of youth, even for those who have been charged with violent offenses.


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