A Criminal Justice Opportunity for Biden and Harris
Last year, when the pandemic was spiraling out of control and ravaging jails and prisons, policymakers sought to stem the tide and went to creative lengths to do so. In response to the growing crisis, the Trump administration released over 24,000 nonviolent federal inmates. The bulk of these individuals were reassigned to some form of house arrest until their sentences concluded or the “pandemic emergency period” ended.
Some finished their sentences from home, but others still have more time to serve. Now that the pandemic has largely subsided, it appears that the Biden administration may soon beckon some 4,000 of these people back to federal prison—despite the many risks and costs associated with doing so. This would raise questions about the administration’s dedication to criminal justice reform, and it would be a curious step—albeit an unsurprising one given their history— for an administration that campaigned vigorously on criminal justice reform.
President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris do not have great records in criminal justice reform. In 1994, then-Senator Biden’s controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act became law. “The law imposed tougher prison sentences at the federal level and encouraged states to do the same. It provided funds for states to build more prisons […] and backed grant programs that encouraged police officers to carry out more drug-related arrests,” Vox explained. The law is blamed for exacerbating existing criminal justice problems, including overcriminalization and racial disparities within the system.
Vice-President Harris’ legacy isn’t much better. “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reform […] Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” the New York Times wrote in 2019. Worse yet, she “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
Regardless of their sordid histories, this is an excellent opportunity for Biden and Harris to chart a new course. And they can start by focusing on the 4,000 individuals scheduled to return to prison. In doing so, aside from working to rehabilitate their tarnished criminal justice legacies, Biden and Harris could begin to reverse a dangerous trend in America. Far too many people are held in prisons for nonviolent crimes—46 percent of those who are incarcerated are there for drug offenses.
Certainly, many of these nonviolent offenders would be better served out of prison, which oftentimes wreaks a far heavier toll on nonviolent offenders than what seems necessary. Every day that people are housed in prison is a day they are subjected to conditions that can create lasting mental health disorders. Once the incarcerated are released, it frequently becomes clear that their stints in prison were largely for naught. They struggle to find gainful employment—with a 27 percent unemployment rate—and are nearly 10 times likelier to become homeless than the rest of society.
What’s more, they often learn criminal behavior while incarcerated and rarely receive the rehabilitative support that they need, which partially explains their recidivism rate. Almost half of those once held in federal prisons are re-arrested within eight years of their release.
Prison results are abysmal, but Americans should expect better given their massive price tag. It costs taxpayers around $37,500 per year to keep low-level inmates in federal institutions. Meanwhile, community supervision programs, like probation and parole, can easily run less than half of that price—saving taxpayer money.
Given these realities, Biden should allow many of the 4,000 to finish their sentences under community supervision. If they aren’t a threat to anyone, then prison may not be the best place for them, and if they have conducted themselves properly over the course of the pandemic, then their good behavior should be rewarded.
This should also be a learning moment for policymakers. The fact that the federal government was able to release tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders in such a manner indicates that maybe they shouldn’t have been incarcerated in the first place. Perhaps Biden, Harris and state governments ought to focus on keeping low-level offenders out of prison and thus bypass much of the destruction caused by incarceration.