Biden Touts Criminal-Justice Reform Ahead of Debates

Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in an electrical workers union hall in Las Vegas on Saturday. (AP Photo/John Locher)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Former vice president turned 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden released a plan Tuesday to reform the American criminal justice system, emphasizing crime prevention over incarceration a week before the second round of Democratic debates.

“Equality, equity, justice – these ideas form the American creed. We have never lived up to it and we haven’t always gotten it right, but we’ve never stopped trying. This is especially true when it comes to our criminal justice system,” the plan states. “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.”

Named “The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” the proposal highlights a number of key initiatives a Biden administration would push for, including crime prevention, eliminating racial disparities in sentencing and addressing juvenile justice issues.

The plan also calls for the immediate passage of Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott’s Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, which looks to align the federal prison system with science aimed at changing criminal behavior and reducing recidivism.

Biden’s proposal pushes the idea of reducing crime by addressing underlying factors behind many offenses. About one in four children in foster care will interact with the criminal justice system two years after leaving foster care, according to the plan, and those in jail also are more likely to have lower literacy rates than those outside the criminal justice system, which is correlated with incarceration.

The plan would create a $20 billion competitive grant program to implore states to shift from an incarceration to prevention system. States, cities and counties will only be eligible for those grants after taking strides to eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes, among other stipulations.

Investing in equal educational opportunities is another prong of prevention efforts, with the former vice president pledging to ensure pre-K access to every 3 and 4 year old in the country.

“Biden will also make sure every high school student graduates with either advanced credits or an industry credential in their pocket. And, he’ll make community college free for all qualified students,” the proposal states.

Looking to tackle racial disparities in the justice system, Biden’s plan touts the creation of an independent taskforce for prosecutorial discretion, in an effort to prevent charges that may be racially motivated. The effort to stop racism in the justice system also hinges on the elimination of the powder and crack cocaine sentencing disparity, decriminalizing cannabis use, ending the death penalty and shutting down privatized prisons.

“We need to confront racial and income-based disparities in our justice system and eliminate overly harsh sentencing for nonviolent crimes,” the release states.

The plan also focuses on the reduction of juvenile incarceration and says Biden would invest $1 billion annually into juvenile justice reform, if elected. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which looks to provide legal counsel to minors along with other tools of legal aid, was appropriated for $176 million, but only received $60 million in 2019 funding.

Reducing violence and offering second chances to offenders are the final points of the plan, noting a Biden administration would aim to ensure all formerly incarcerated individuals have housing upon their release. Biden also calls for defeating the National Rifle Association, reinvigorating community policing and countering a rise in hate crimes to reduce violence.

But another 2020 presidential hopeful, Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., blasted Biden’s proposal Tuesday. In a statement, Booker called the former vice president and longtime lawmaker a “proud architect of a failed system” and said he was not the right person to champion criminal justice reform.

The senator says the plan falls short of rectifying injustices and doesn’t offer the change the nation needs, especially for people of color affected by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that Biden helped craft.

“We need to fundamentally dismantle our broken criminal justice system as we know it. Our next president must both heal our country from decades of racist and unjust policy, and put forward a sweeping vision for how we can rise together,” Booker said. “Any comprehensive plan simply must include the legalization of marijuana, an overhaul of policing practices, ambitious use of presidential clemency power to right past wrongs, and reinvestment in the communities that have borne the costs of mass incarceration. Joe Biden’s plan doesn’t do that.”

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