From Route Fifty:

The “sheer scope of the funding” signals Biden’s interest in spurring prevention efforts quickly, said Emily Mooney, a policy fellow at the R Street Institute. “It’s a tried and true method for change—the dangling carrot,” she said. “This is where the federal government is best able to help states out as they’re looking at their budgets and saying, ‘Do we really need to incarcerate these people?’”

The grant money may be a carrot, but there are some sticks involved, Mooney noted. To get funding, Biden wants to require states to do things like eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, end the use of private prisons, and sunset cash bail—all policies that have grown in popularity in recent years (even in Republican states). But while local officials may agree with the policy changes, or at least some of them, they might not be ready to comply. For example, Mooney pointed out that New Mexico relies on private prisons to house around 50% of their incarcerated population.

While grantmaking would be the main engine for change at the state and local level, federal reform can also be a “really important signaling mechanism for states,” said Mooney. Congress approved the First Step Act in 2018, which changed sentencing guidelines for the federal prison system. In the nearly two years since its passage, legislatures in at least 16 states have considered bills to change state sentencing guidelines, including states like South Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Alaska.

Mooney thinks there’s a “strong chance” of more federal action on criminal justice under Biden, especially given the president-elect’s calls for unity and collaboration with Republican lawmakers. “I really hope Republicans in the House and Senate take up Biden’s offer,” she said. “It would be a great message to the public that regardless of our policy preferences, we care about individual liberty and human dignity, we care about making sure people are treated fairly under the law.”

Featured Publications