President Joe Biden promised during the campaign trail to pass sweeping criminal justice reforms, telling a voter in 2019 he would cut the number of incarcerated people in the country by more than half.
But six months into his term, the number of people in federal prisons is growing, reports Mother Jones — and law professors, legal researchers and incarcerated people agree that Biden’s criminal justice agenda hasn’t lived up to its hype.
After the Biden administration announced that thousands of people released early from federal prisons last year to reduce COVID-19 transmission might be forced to return, New York University law professor Rachel Barkow reacted on Twitter.
“This is the most telling sign yet that this administration has criminal justice low on its list of priorities, despite the campaign promises to the contrary,” tweeted Barkow, who served on the US Sentencing Commission under President Barack Obama. “I honestly don’t know how anyone who cares about criminal justice reform and works in this administration can stand by and let this happen.”
Barkow isn’t alone in her disappointment. If Biden were to receive a grade for his efforts to reform prisons and policing, many experts would give him poor marks. After The New York Times reported earlier this week that the thousands of federal convicts released to home confinement to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 will be required by law to return to prison a month after the state of emergency for the pandemic ends, an outcry ensued.
“If people are already out on home confinement, and they’re home with their families, and they’re not committing new crimes,” Inimai Chettiar, federal director for the Justice Action Network, told Mother Jones, “then it does seem cruel and unnecessary and unreasonable to force the [federal Bureau of Prisons] to bring them back to prison.”
It’s incarcerated people — and all justice-involved people — who will endure the implications of Biden’s policies most acutely.
Wendy Hechtman, for example, is serving a 15-year sentence for a drug crime, could once again be ripped from their families and placed in prison.
“It’s like waiting to be sentenced all over again,” she told The Times.
The same fear is gipping Stacie Demers, who has served nearly half of a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Currently living in her aunt’s home in Albany, N.Y., she said she felt as if she was “stuck between the beginning and the end, so to speak. The thing is constantly in the back of my mind: Do I have to go back? Will I not see my family again?”
In the realm of criminal justice, many of Biden’s promises are extensions of Obama-era initiatives: repealing federal mandatory minimum sentences, eliminating the death penalty at the federal level and encouraging state and local governments to eliminate questions about criminal history in employment applications are among Biden’s priorities, reports Politico.
Between January and July, though, he prioritized policies concerning COVID-19 and economic recovery, even as advocates called for prison reform and solutions to address rising crime rates in several U.S. cities.
In June, he announced an anti-crime plan that targets law-breaking gun dealers, provides federal resources to police departments for gun-crime enforcement and allows communities to repurpose millions of dollars of federal coronavirus relief funding for programs proven to prevent gun violence, ABC News reports.
The criticisms of Biden’s performance on criminal justice is particularly resonant for the president, who in 1994 helped pass the infamous crime bill, recognized now as a major accelerator of mass incarceration that disproportionately harmed Black and brown Americans.
Now, the decision to potentially recall inmates from home confinement has been a flashpoint for criticism, including critiques from elected House Representatives of Biden’s own party. More than two dozen members of the House — nearly all were Democrats — sent Biden a letter in April urging the White House to reverse the decision.
But for many, the disappointment goes deeper. Some of Biden’s actions — like his support for renewing a policy that subjects individuals to mandatory minimum sentences for having trace amounts of fentanyl in their systems — directly contradict campaign promises, Law 360 reports.
Professor Andrew Sidman, chair of the political science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, summarized Biden’s early actions.
“Biden’s first 100 days have not been inconsequential, outside of criminal justice reform where he hasn’t done much,” Sidman said.
This summary was prepared by TCR Justice Reporting intern Eva Herscowitz.