Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden tacked away from his drug warrior past with a new plan Tuesday. He wants to reduce mass incarceration in the US with a 10-page proposal including: decriminalization of cannabis, $20 billion in prevention funds for communities, efforts to reduce racial profiling by police, more job training in prisons, ending private prisons, and other proposals.
Joe Biden, former vice president, Democratic presidential candidate
“Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States–and too many of them are black and brown,” Biden’s team said in a post to his campaign website on Tuesday. “To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we’re sending to jail, how we treat those in jail, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time.”
According to FBI reports, cannabis is a key driver of mass incarceration—marijuana arrests are the number one type of drug arrest in the US, and drug arrests are the number one type of arrest police make. Former Vice President Biden’s cannabis decriminalization would come with automatic expungements of past marijuana records, support for federal medical legalization, and a downgrade of cannabis to Schedule II, “so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”
As for adult-use federal legalization, Biden echoed President Trump’s position in recent years, stating he would, “leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states.”
Critics Pounce on Biden’s Past Votes
Facing another debate with Sen. Kamala Harris next week, Biden’s “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice” proposals move the vice president away from his historically tough-on-crime policies, for which he is being attacked from both the right and the left.
Biden joined with many Democrats, Republicans, and minority leaders in the ’80s and ’90s to enact harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug use, three-strikes laws with life sentences, civil asset forfeiture, and the death penalty for drug-related murders. GOP critics note Biden once claimed George H.W. Bush’s war on drugs was “not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough.”
While former President Bill Clinton has apologized for crime policies that “made the problem worse,” Biden responded by saying the 1994 crime bill he led was “another part of my long record that is being grossly misrepresented.”
He made no apologies for past votes Tuesday. “I believe my criminal justice reform package is as strong or stronger than anyone else,” Biden said in a video.
Sen. Cory Booker reacted to Biden’s Tuesday proposal with a tweet: “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.”
An Important Evolution Nonetheless
Biden’s proposals amplify the reach of once-radical ideas into mainstream political thought, though. The laundry list of ideas includes ending cash bail, a proposal California enacted in 2018 but put on hold pending a 2020 referendum sponsored by the bail industry.
Biden’s campaign notes the cash bail system is “the modern day debtors’ prison. The cash bail system incarcerates people who are presumed innocent. And, it disproportionately harms low income individuals.”
Biden’s plan also would create universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds, because “focusing on addressing [mass incarceration’s] underlying factors is not just the right thing to do, it is also good for our communities and our economy.”
Biden would also work to reduce the jailing of children through grants for diversion programs. San Francisco intends to close its juvenile hall by the end of 2021, citing high costs, low use, and incarceration’s irreparable harm to youth.
The former vice president faces off against Harris and other Democratic primary contenders in a televised debate in Detroit Wed., July 31.