Biden unveils criminal justice plan ahead of debate showdown with Harris, Booker

Posted at 4:04 AM, Jul 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-23 10:57:13-04

Former Vice President Joe Biden is proposing a $20 billion grant program aimed at pressuring states to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes and institute programs that offer inmates opportunities to earn credit toward their sentences for completing educational and rehabilitation programs.

The grants, part of a criminal justice plan Biden’s campaign unveiled Tuesday, would go to what Biden’s campaign calls efforts proven to reduce incarceration — including combating illiteracy and child abuse. Biden’s campaign said the grants are inspired by a proposal from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.

Biden’s plan comes the week before the second Democratic presidential debate, where he’ll be on stage between California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Both have been sharply critical of Biden over his role in the passage of the 1994 crime bill, which incentivized states to implement tough sentencing laws with mandatory minimums — which Harris and Booker have said contributed to mass incarceration.

After Biden’s plan was released on Tuesday, Booker tweeted, “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.”

While Booker did not name Biden in the tweet, his campaign confirmed to CNN it was directed at the former vice president.

“He knows that a number of people are going to try to weaponize his service in Congress against him — and I know some people in this race would like to believe he never served as vice president to President (Barack) Obama,” a senior Biden campaign official who briefed reporters on the plan said.

Biden is set to tout his criminal justice reforms in front of largely black audiences this week at forums hosted by the NAACP in Detroit and the Urban League in Indianapolis.

He is backing policies that would undo some of the causes of mass incarceration in black communities, including ending mandatory minimum sentences and retroactively eliminating the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine. He would also end cash bail.

His plan includes addressing police and prosecutorial misconduct through the Justice Department by returning to the Obama administration’s use of pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees to address systemic police misconduct, which have faced more limited use under Trump’s administration. He would also urge Congress to pass legislation that would expand that power to convert the conduct of prosecutors’ offices.

And it calls for legislation that would end the death penalty on the federal level — a reversal from his support for the death penalty during his six terms in the Senate.

Biden’s plan also calls for a task force created outside the Justice Department to make recommendations to address discrimination that results from arrest and charging decisions.

He would increase spending from $60 million appropriated in 2019 to $1 billion per year on juvenile justice, including launching a new grant program that would push states to put non-violent youth in alternatives to prison.

His plan sets a goal of ensuring everyone released from prison has access to affordable housing. He would direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to only contract with providers who accept those being released from prison.

Biden’s plan stops short of calling for the federal government to legalize marijuana, a position other leading Democrats have taken.

Instead, he would embrace a position closer to Obama’s and decriminalize marijuana use — while also automatically expunging prior convictions tied to cannabis use.

Biden is also calling for changes to marijuana laws, including classifying it as a Schedule II drug — a move that would allow researchers to study its impacts. He supports legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, though he would leave the legal status of recreational use up to the states.

The former vice president is also calling for an end to all incarceration for drug use alone, instead seeking to require federal courts to divert those facing charges into drug courts “so they receive treatment to address their substance use disorder,” his plan says. He would also give states incentives to put the same requirements in place.