Joe Biden fights youth incarceration in new criminal justice plan

ABC News
ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Former Vice President Joe Biden rolled out his criminal justice plan Tuesday, as the front-runner has come under fire for his past record from 2020 Democratic opponents.

The plan focuses on preventing crime, eliminating racial disparities and providing second chances for those who have had contact with the criminal justice system.

Biden joins fellow presidential hopefuls Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and others in releasing criminal justice plans.

Biden, like Booker, Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calls for the end of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes — including some put in place by bills passed while Biden served as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary committee.

The Biden plan calls for treatment for those who suffer from addiction rather than incarceration, increase federal funding for drug courts, and an elimination of the disparity in how crack users and cocaine users are charged and sentenced — also enacted while Biden served on the Judiciary Committee.

Biden has expressed regret over supporting the past policy, calling it a “mistake” earlier this year, and saying while he hasn’t always gotten it right, he’s always tried.

“It was a big mistake when it was made. We thought, we were told by the experts, that, ‘Crack, you never go back.’ That it was somehow fundamentally different — it is not different. But it has trapped an entire generation,” Biden said in remarks during a National Action Committee Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in January.

On marijuana, Biden — like many other candidates — will decriminalize the drug. The former vice president will also automatically expunge records for those who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses. But unlike some of his presidential opponents, he does not call for the federal legalization of the drug, but rather for it to be made a schedule II drug so more research can be done on its effects.

Biden’s plan calls for an end to private prisons, cash bail and the death penalty, and would expand the Justice Department’s purview to address police and prosecutor misconduct. It would also institute an independent task force to tackle discrimination as well.

One unique feature of Biden’s plan is the large emphasis on juvenile criminal justice reform — investing $1 billion annually to keep minors from being placed in adult prisons and expand funding for after-school programs, community centers and summer jobs.

The Biden plan would provide $20 billion in grants for states that find methods to reduce crime and incarceration, citing a proposal from the Brennan Center. That plan would be paid for by “the saving incurred by reducing incarcerations” over 10 years, according to the campaign.

The former vice president will also set a goal of ensuring 100% of formerly incarcerated individuals will have housing upon release by directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to only contract with entities that are open to housing individuals who are looking for a second chance.

Biden’s record on criminal justice has been criticized by some of his 2020 Democratic challengers, largely because of Biden’s pivotal role in getting the 1994 crime bill passed while Senate Judiciary chairman.

Booker said the bill “put mass incarceration on steroids.”

“Why did it take him so long to apologize? I’m stunned,” Booker said at a Washington Post Live event July 18.

“It is a horrific bill that has led to the reality right now that is indefensible, where we have more African Americans under criminal supervision in America than all the slaves in 1850,” Booker continued.

“We need a nominee in the Democratic Party that understands the crime bill was a mistake,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told ABC News in May.

Biden has disputed the idea that the crime bill created mass incarceration, saying at a stop on the campaign trail in Nashua, New Hampshire, on May 14: “Folks, let’s get something straight. … This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration, it did not generate mass incarceration.”

Still, senior Biden campaign officials say the former vice president expects attacks from his opponents on his record.

“He knows that a number of people are going to try to weaponize his services in Congress against him, and I know some people in this race would like to believe he never served as the vice president to President Obama. But he’s proud of his record,” one official said. “As he noted he didn’t always get everything right. And I think this plan is a true reflection of what he believes.”

Racial inequality has become a major focus of the 2020 race, with several candidates unveiling their plans to address disparities in the fight for African American voters.

Buttigieg, who has struggled to win the support of minority voters, released his Douglass Plan, which would intend to decrease the incarceration rate at both the state and federal level by 50%, and eliminate incarcerations for drug possession or a failure to pay legal fees, while retroactively reducing sentences for other drug offenses.

Booker has made criminal justice a core policy of his campaign after he co-sponsored the “First Step Act” in 2018.

After launching his 2020 run, Booker announced a follow up bill that would let federal prisoners who have served more than 10 years in prison petition a court for early release. The Matthew Charles and William Underwood Second Look Act would also create a “presumption of release” for inmates 50 and older unless the government can prove the inmate would be a threat to society.

Biden is not the only 2020 candidate to come under fire for their past record with criminal justice. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has also received criticism for her past work as a prosecutor and California’s attorney general — especially for her campaign against truancy as district attorney. Some have criticized the policy as an attempt to criminalize parents whose children missed more than 30 days of schools.

But Harris has been critical about the high incarceration rates in the United States.

Biden first unveiled some of his criminal justice reform proposals in late June at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention.

“Instead of teaching people how to be better criminals in prison, we should be educating people in prison, It’s in our interest to do so,” said Biden. “Automatic restoration of rights once your sentence is served, meaning not only you can vote, but you’re qualified for every program including Pell grants to go on, get your education. It makes no sense. Look folks, we have to unite this country.”

The policy rollout comes ahead of Biden’s appearances at the NAACP Convention in Detroit, the National Urban League Conference in Indianapolis and the second Democratic presidential debate.

Biden will face off with Booker and Harris on the second Debate night, but a senior Biden campaign official downplayed the suggestion that the timing of this policy release had anything to do with the upcoming debate. The official noted Biden would talk about several policies he’s released over the last month.

“There are real differences in this race between Vice President Biden and a number of the people on that stage and you can expect him to draw that contrast next Wednesday,” one offical said.

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