Whenever President Joe Biden or Vice-President Kamala Harris claim that they plan to reform the criminal justice system, Americans should brace themselves. Both individuals have a long history of promoting criminal justice policies that are so bad that even tough-on-crime Republicans should recoil.

Biden was the sponsor of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was the “most sweeping crime bill in U.S. history,” the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) wrote. The law was “responsible for exacerbating racial disparities in criminal justice involvement” and led to over-incarceration that still plagues America today.

Harris is no better. As Attorney General, “Harris 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,” wrote the New York Times.

Despite years of backing truly abhorrent policies, Biden and Harris have something positive to tout. On April 26, the White House announced that they were pardoning three individuals and commuting the sentences of 75 federal inmates who were convicted of non-violent crimes—some of whom have Georgia connections.

One of the three pardons was for Dexter Eugene Jackson of Athens, Georgia. He served time for allowing drug dealers to conduct transactions in his pool hall—even though he was never directly involved in trafficking. Among the commutations was that of Carry Le from Duluth, Georgia, who was convicted of conspiring to possess 1,000 marijuana plants and sentenced to a whopping 10 years in federal prison—a sentence that Biden shortened.

While the courts found that these 78 people broke the law and merited punishment, many of their sentences seem excessively harsh and inconsistent with their crimes, especially given that these are nonviolent offenses and marijuana is legal in many states. As such, the Biden administration deserves credit for rectifying the sentencing disparities in these cases, but this is only a tiny step in the right direction. Unfortunately, without broader reforms, this is little more than window dressing—possibly a PR stunt to help shore up Biden’s shockingly bad polling numbers.

“It’s great that 78 people received clemency in some form today, but it fades into the background of 18,000 petitions pending on the President’s desk,” exclaimed Ames Grawert, of the Brennan Center for Justice. Moreover, helping 78 people—noble as it may be—is simply a drop in the bucket considering that there are some 150,000 inmates housed in federal prisons—meaning far more work needs to be done.

While I remain skeptical of Biden’s interest in justice reform, if he’s truly serious about improving the system, then there are some concrete steps that he can champion. To begin with, “The President needs to come up with a system for ensuring that those thousands of [clemency] petitions receive a careful and thorough review and the attention they deserve,” Grawert added. “It’s not clear to me that the current process is up to the task.”

Clearly, streamlining the clemency process would be a positive, but lawmakers also need to address sentencing disparities and apply the changes retroactively. For example, Biden co-sponsored a 1986 bill that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. It has since been reduced to an 18 to 1 disparity, but it still makes little sense.

According to a Congressional report, both substances have the same “physiological and psychotropic effects,” but the sentencing disparity means that small-time crack users receive a sentence similar to high-level powder cocaine traffickers. The end result is an uneven sentencing paradigm that leads to bloated prison populations.

Even if Biden were to fix the clemency process and sentencing disparities, that would only be part of the equation. Once these individuals are released back into society, many will be saddled with permanent criminal records, which serves as a second, life-long punishment. This prevents some from obtaining employment or education, since roughly 90 percent of employers and 60 percent of colleges screen applicants’ backgrounds. Without a job, many are likely to return to crime to make ends meet.

By adopting clean slate legislation, which is a “new bipartisan policy model that uses technology to automatically clear criminal records if a person stays crime-free,” for nonviolent, rehabilitated offenders, Biden could help the formerly incarcerated remain productive members of society. This would keep America safer and reduce the taxpayer burden associated with crime and imprisonment. That’s a win-win.

Criminal justice reform has broad support too. A 2020 poll determined that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the justice system needs major changes. In spite of this, there hasn’t been a single landmark justice reform since Biden took office. Rather than touting superficial tweaks that do little on a grand scale, the White House should focus on substantive changes.

Featured Publications