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Since Minneapolis officers killed George Floyd in May 2020, the reemerging Black Lives Matter movement and protesters who champion its banner on the ground have dealt a blow to policing, incarceration, and the justice system as we know it. Never before have so many called for the defunding and downsizing—if not outright dismantling—of police departments across the country. So where does President-elect Joe Biden stand on the issue?
Biden—who helped author the 1994 crime bill—is far from a future that imagines the abolition of police and prisons, even if President Donald Trump and his Republican backers would like conservative voters to think so.
The Biden campaign's platform promises a renewed commitment to reforming the justice system by investing a whopping $300 million for police departments to hire more officers and train them on "community-oriented" policies. He also proposes ways to prevent crime, such as expanding access to and funding for mental health and substance abuse services, as well as creating a competitive $20 billion grant program in an effort to encourage states to implement crime-prevention policies.
"What I support are the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face and I’m totally opposed to defunding the police offices," Biden said during the first presidential debate in September 2020. "As a matter of fact, police, local police, the only one defunding in his budget calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance. They need more assistance."
Later, he lauded police officers. "The vast majority of police officers are good, decent, honorable men and women," he said. "They risk their lives every day to take care of us, but there are some bad apples. And when they occur, when they find them, they have to be sorted out. They have to be held accountable."
Below, we track the former vice president's policy proposals for reform, as well as his record in matters of criminal justice.
His platform is reform oriented, with a focus on community crime prevention and expanding accountability of officer misconduct.
The main tenets of Biden's criminal justice plan are to reduce crime and the amount of people incarcerated, eliminate racial disparities in the sentencing process, hold police officers accountable for misconduct, and offer rehabilitation for those who were previously incarcerated, according to his campaign's website.
To confront the plague of racial disparities and police misconduct, Biden proposes the establishment of an independent Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion, expanding the power of the Justice Department to investigate police behavior, decriminalizing marijuana, investing in the offices of public defenders, offering alternatives to detention, and more. He also supports the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, the death sentence, and the use of cash bail.
Ambitiously, Biden also set a goal of ensuring that 100 percent of formerly incarcerated people have housing upon release. Other rehabilitation efforts he says he'll undertake in the White House include expanding access to mental health and substance abuse treatment, job training, and educational opportunities during and after incarceration, as well as eliminating existing barriers that keep the formerly incarcerated from public programs, like SNAP.
What does crime prevention look like under Biden's plan?
Much of Biden's criminal justice platform zeroes in on crime prevention, manifested through investing in education, expanding federal funding for mental health and substance use disorder services and research, and relying on social services in certain cases instead of police officers.
The former vice president also modeled a new $20 billion grant program off a proposal by the Brennan Center for Justice, in which states, cities, and counties will receive funding if they take on policies that reduce crime and incarceration. These include eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes, instituting earned credit programs, and more.
He calls for funneling money into the system at a time when organizers and protesters want to defund the police.
While many political pundits and analysts are quick to paint Biden's platform as a sweeping and comprehensive suite of well-intentioned reforms, many of those who have long fought and organized against the injustices of the justice system see it as adding insult to injury.
Over the summer, there have been widespread calls for cities to defund (if not outright abolish) their police departments, resulting in daily protests, riots, and city hall encampments. Still, Biden has made it clear that he stands on the opposing side of this progressive flank.
In a June op-ed for USA Today, Biden wrote the following.
While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police. The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.
I’ve long been a firm believer in the power of community policing — getting cops out of their cruisers and building relationships with the people and the communities they are there to serve and protect. That’s why I’m proposing an additional $300 million to reinvigorate community policing in our country. Every single police department should have the money it needs to institute real reforms like adopting a national use of force standard, buying body cameras and recruiting more diverse police officers.
Biden's $300 million plan would come in the form of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which authorizes the hiring of additional officers and investing in training for a "community policing approach." He also proposes investing $1 billion per year to fund the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which gives states money to provide children with legal representation and to help seal and expunge records, so long as states fulfill certain requirements, like prohibiting children from being incarcerated in facilities that incarcerate adults.
Still, some warn that funding for police departments isn't always used for its supposed "community-oriented" purposes. "Since the program started, billions of dollars have gone to encourage more policing, and far, far less has gone to more community-minded policing," Rachel Harmon, the director of the Center for Criminal Justice at the University of Virginia School of Law, told ABC News.
And, for those leading activists to the left of Biden and his party, pushing back against the rhetoric of criminal justice reforms and investments is critical to the heart of abolitionist thought.
"The philosophy undergirding these reforms is that more rules will mean less violence. But police officers break rules all the time," wrote Mariame Kaba, an organizer and founder of Project NIA, for a June op-ed on police abolition in The New York Times. "Look what has happened over the past few weeks—police officers slashing tires, shoving old men on camera, and arresting and injuring journalists and protesters. These officers are not worried about repercussions any more than Daniel Pantaleo, the former New York City police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner's death; he waved to a camera filming the incident. He knew that the police union would back him up and he was right. He stayed on the job for five more years."
Biden famously helped author the 1994 crime bill.
Over the course of the 2020 election season, Biden's leading role in crafting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which established the COPS program that he wants to funnel $300 million into once elected, has come under intense scrutiny.
Commonly known as the 1994 crime bill, the legislation enacted tough-on-crime policies that helped propel an era of mass incarceration in the '90s (a sole link from mass incarceration to Biden's legislation remains murky). Through the tantalizing promise of federal funding, states were incentivized to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws, build more jails and prisons, and take on other punitive measures that decidedly not only kept people in jail for longer but also ensnared more individuals into the sticky system.
Biden has since attempted to backtrack on the bill, admitting that it was a "mistake."
"It was a big mistake that was made," he said at the start of 2019. "We were told by the experts that 'With crack you can never go back.' … It's trapped an entire generation."
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