Biden can redeem checkered past and regenerate hope for millions with criminal justice reform
As President Biden works to fulfill his campaign promise of healing America and defeating systemic racism, he is haunted by a skeleton in his closet: His leading role in the passage of the 1994 crime bill, a major accelerator for mass incarceration, has many black and brown Americans feeling skeptical about his commitment to reform. But like justice-involved individuals, President Biden deserves a chance at redemption.
I was 14 years old in 1994 when Biden passed his crime bill. When he spoke about children exposed to drugs and violence who were “running headlong over a cliff,” he was talking about me. I lived in a low-income community beset by drugs and violence. My father had been out of my life for years; my mother spent most of her time away from home; my stepfather was an alcoholic, and my eldest brother was in a gang. That same year, my first daughter was stillborn after five months of pregnancy.
Like millions of others in similar communities, I was at-risk. I was a statistic. And sure enough, I found myself involved in the justice system. I committed petty crimes that were not in my heart simply to survive or at times to fit in, always hoping to find the guidance I so desperately needed and wanted. I spent time in both a juvenile detention center and a group home. The war on crime’s focus on punitive action over deterrence and rehabilitation left me hopeless, invisible even. But then the hopelessness turned to hopefulness.
Fast forward 27 years, and I am now the proud mother of three and a college graduate with an MBA. I have climbed the corporate ladder and am the CEO of a non-profit organization dedicated to giving the justice-involved people what I had: a second chance at life.
I know that redemption is possible for President Biden, too. It’s true that his 1994 legislation, which he called “the Biden Crime Bill” until as recently as 2015, led to many of the conditions Americans have flooded the streets to protest over the past year, including increased police presence in low-income communities, harsher sentencing guidelines, expanded use of the death penalty, and reduced education funding for prisons. But President Biden’s role in creating our current crisis is precisely what makes him uniquely positioned to confront it.
Biden can take a page from the playbook I use when counseling incarcerated individuals. I tell them to “keep it REAL,” which stands for responsibility, empowerment, accountability, and leadership.
First, President Biden must take responsibility for his words and deeds. In the 1990s, he called justice-involved individuals “predators on our streets” who were “beyond the pale” and could not be rehabilitated. Statements like these led to bad policies and, ultimately, to the dehumanization of those who have committed offenses.
Admitting his role in the crisis is the first step to introducing needed reforms, including the elimination of mandatory minimums, as well as the “85 percent rule,” which requires an individual to serve the majority of that minimum sentence. Reform measures must also abolish the death penalty and end the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity, while making it illegal to criminalize poverty through cash bail and unaffordable fines.
Second, President Biden can empower communities and individuals to lift themselves up. He can create a new competitive grant program to incentivize states to shift the criminal justice focus from incarceration to prevention, reinstate Pell Grant availability for justice-involved people, use his clemency power to secure releases, and expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. He must also invest in educational opportunities and training for people during and after incarceration.
Third, President Biden can promote accountability for himself and others in positions of power, by, for example, expanding the power of the U.S. Justice Department to address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors’ offices. He should establish an independent task force on prosecutorial discretion and invest in public defenders’ offices to ensure access to quality counsel.
Responsibility, empowerment, and accountability support the fourth and final tenet of redemption: leadership. Communities ravaged by the war on crime are aching for a leader. Too little has changed since the 1990s. The at-risk youth from 30 years ago now make up a large percentage of incarcerated persons, and they are experiencing second and third generation recidivism. Further punitive measures will only exacerbate, rather than end, the cycle.
President Biden can regenerate hope by acknowledging the mistakes of the past, as he is uniquely equipped to do.
We need a leader who will not only change the system going forward, but who will welcome the millions of Americans who have been excluded from community life back into the fold. Biden’s message can be, “I helped get you into this mess, now I’ll help get you out.”
I am a living testament to the fact that not every person involved in our justice system is destined for a life of criminality. From politicians to justice-involved people, everyone has made mistakes, and everyone should be viewed as one good decision away from atonement. If President Biden leads the way, we can regenerate hope for communities stricken by poverty and crime. When hope is present, we will not only survive, we will truly thrive.
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