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Key Takeaways From Biden's Criminal Justice Reform Plan

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a wide-reaching plan on Tuesday with goals to reduce prison populations, create a more just society, and increase community safety.
Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden gestures while meeting with patrons at a restaurant in Los Angeles on July 19th, 2019.

Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden gestures while meeting with patrons at a restaurant in Los Angeles on July 19th, 2019.

Amid ongoing criticism over his record on race and crime, former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a wide-reaching criminal justice reform plan on Tuesday with goals to reduce prison populations, create a more just society, and increase community safety.

The Biden Plan for Strengthening America's Commitment to Justice calls attention to mass incarceration and the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the criminal justice system. The plan also emphasizes a need for the system to center around rehabilitation and redemption rather than punishment.

Here is a breakdown of the plan's core action areas and key items Biden hopes to achieve in each category, plus ways his plan compares to those of other Democratic hopefuls.

Preventing Crime and Providing Opportunities

Biden emphasizes a need to address underlying factors, such as growing up in foster care or having a mental-health or substance abuse disorder, that increase likelihood of incarceration. He wants to create a $20 billion competitive grant program giving states, counties, and cities funds to launch preventative efforts to reduce crime and incarceration if they comply with certain requirements, like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

His approach to preventing crime includes investments in education, particularly for students from low-income families. His vision includes expanding public pre-K and making community college free, both popular ideas within the Democratic field.

Biden intends to extend health insurance coverage so that more Americans with mental-health and substance abuse disorders have access to treatment. He wants to increase overall funding for mental-health services and double the number of health professionals in schools. He also hopes to partner mental-health professionals, social workers, and disability advocates with police departments to train officers to improve their communication with people with certain disabilities.

Eliminating Racial Disparities and Ensuring Fair Sentences

The plan includes a long list of commitments intended to confront racial and income-based disparities in the criminal justice system. Among Biden's top priorities are:

  • Using the Department of Justice to address systemic police and prosecutor misconduct, reversing limitations imposed by the Trump administration.
  • Increasing resources for public defenders to ensure all defendants have access to quality counsel.
  • Improving care for incarcerated women.
  • Decriminalizing cannabis use and expunging prior cannabis use convictions (though not fully legalizing it, isolating Biden from most Democratic candidates on this issue).
  • Ending the federal disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences and applying this change retroactively (a reform New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has included in the Next Step Act).
  • Broadly using the president's clemency power (an idea Booker and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar have pledged to champion as well).
  • Encouraging states to collect ethnicity data on their incarcerated populations.

Biden wants to bring an end to a number of policies unpopular among Democrats, such as:

  • Incarceration for drug use alone.
  • The death penalty.
  • Private prisons.
  • Mandatory minimums.
  • The cash bail system.
  • The jailing of people who cannot pay fines and fees the system levies.
  • Solitary confinement (with limited exceptions).

Juvenile Justice

Last year, Congress passed the First Step Act (a bill Booker co-sponsored), which included, among other reforms, a ban on juvenile solitary confinement. Continuing to reform juvenile justice is a key element of Biden's plan. He intends to invest $1 billion per year in juvenile justice reform through grants that incentivize state action. He wants to increase community-based alternatives to prisons and end detention for status offenses, such as underage drinking.

In addition, Biden wants to expand funding for after-school programs so students can have fun, nurturing communities outside of school, and he wants to create a national summer job program so young adults can stay occupied, earn money, and learn new skills. He hopes his measure to double mental-health professionals in schools will contribute to the prevention of crime and incarceration among juveniles. Biden's plan would also require states to secure and automatically expunge juvenile crime records.

Offering Second Chances

The First Step Act included reforms to help ease the transition for returning citizens, and Booker introduced the Next Step Act in March of 2019 to build on those reforms. Biden echoes Booker and other candidates' goals to improve the transition of formerly incarcerated individuals back into society.

To achieve this, Biden would set a national goal to make sure 100 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals have access to housing (California Senator Kamala Harris also recently introduced a plan to increase access to housing for formerly incarcerated people). He hopes to eliminate other existing challenges to re-entry, such as barriers to accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Pell grants. He also wants to increase access to mental-health and substance abuse disorder treatment, education, and job training for people while in prison and after incarceration.

Reducing Violence and Supporting Survivors of Violence

Biden's plan includes measures to reduce violent crime and improve support for survivors. He wants to counter the rise in hate crimes by exhibiting moral leadership and prioritizing the prosecution of hate crimes. He also wants to reinvigorate the Community Oriented Policing System with a $300 million investment to hire police officers who mirror the demographics of a community and train officers so they know how to build trust with constituents.

Like the rest of the Democratic candidates, Biden supports increased gun control, and he pledges to "defeat the National Rifle Association again," referencing his work on the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993 and assault weapon bans in 1994. He wants to reauthorize and strengthen the Violence Against Women Act, which he originally authored.

In addition, Biden's plan would allocate funding for schools to heal trauma through methods such as sports and art. He wants to make federal programs more trauma-informed so they can better support survivors of violence and raise the funding cap for the Victims of Crime Act programs that provide financial support for those who need help paying violence-related expenses.