The American criminal legal system is rife with practices that destroy lives, waste money and fail to improve public safety. Following a summer of protests against some of the system’s worst injustices, the presidential election turned on the votes of the racial groups most harmed by it. The Biden administration now has an opportunity — and obligation — to remake this system, from policing to prisons. The American people want a system that delivers justice for all.
Here are five steps the administration must take in its first 100 days to jumpstart that process:
- End federal investment in local law enforcement and incarceration. Federal investment in the infrastructure of incarceration has driven an explosion in jail populations in rural counties. Since 2013, the jail population has grown 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in smaller cities —even as the number of people in jails in the nation’s biggest cities declined by 18 percent. The Biden administration should end federal support for local jails and policing and reinvest those dollars in other community needs — such as education, health care, employment and alternatives to incarceration — that can improve public safety and enhance community well-being.
- Transform conditions of confinement. American prisons are notoriously for leaving people worse off than before they entered. Using funding and other incentives, the federal government should create and uphold a standard for transformational change, including ending the damaging practice of solitary confinement, ensuring quality and gender-specific services and health care, making family and community contact a right, and more. Approximately 600,000 people each year return to their communities from prisons, most of whom are underprepared to reintegrate into society. Rehabilitation and healing for incarcerated people and increased community safety starts with creating environments suitable for transformation.
- End monetary injustice. Polls show that Americans do not believe people should be incarcerated solely because they cannot afford bail money. Yet approximately two-thirds of the more than 700,000 people sitting in U.S. jails are there not because they have committed a crime, but because they are too poor to pay for their freedom. Proposed legislation such as the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act would create federal grants to incentivize ending the misuse of pretrial detention. The Biden administration should champion this legislation, and devise other mechanisms to end bail across the country.
- Improve criminal legal system transparency and accountability. The federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on local law enforcement, with wholly inadequate oversight. There are no federal mandates to collect and report important law enforcement data, including use-of-force and police misconduct statistics, or data concerning the workings of America’s jails, prisons, and detention facilities. Without more transparency, we cannot adequately respond to dangerous conditions behind bars or end unjust police practices.
- Expand opportunities for postsecondary education and training for people in prison. Leaving prison with a college degree makes it much less likely that a person will return. Yet, the 1994 Crime Bill ended Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, causing a precipitous drop in postsecondary education opportunities in prisons. Congress has voted to repeal the ban on Pell Grants in a bipartisan manner, and the Biden administration should boldly push to clear any final hurdles and support successful implementation so that more people leave prisons with the knowledge and skills they need to take care of families and pursue opportunities.
The criminal legal system, in its current state, inflicts unnecessary pain on far too many people, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, Latinx and poor. These first steps would improve countless lives and put us closer to a criminal legal system that delivers justice — to the very voters who helped give President-elect Biden his margin of victory.
Nick Turner is president and director of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice in New York, created in 1961 to collaborate with government, civic leaders and communities impacted by the criminal legal and immigration systems to implement change. Follow him on Twitter @NickTurner718.