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What Will Be the Biden-Harris Administration's Legacy on Reforming the Criminal Justice System?

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

The United States is no stranger to history-making moments which includes Americans electing the first female, Black, and South Asian - American to serve as vice president of the United States. While this moment will be remembered for both the symbolic and historical significance, what will it mean in real-time? More importantly, what will this mean for the country with the highest incarcerated population in the world?

Black voters single-handedly delivered the White House to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. On the heels of 2020, a year marked by nationwide protests against police brutality, racial injustice, and other social inequities, this administration must deliver meaningful change. Sweeping criminal justice reform is long overdue and given the history that both President Bide and Vice President Harris have with criminal justice policy, expectations are high. Despite those expectations, many, particularly in communities of color, are still wary. Between generally unfulfilled promises of the Democratic Party to the controversial historiesBiden and Harris h, the stakes for creating meaningful change are high. Despite Biden’s recent calls for racial justice, his 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act set the stage for current-day problems in our criminal justice system that disproportionately impact people of color.

Vice President Harris’ criminal justice record may have killed her presidential bid to become the first female POTUS, but it didn’t deter Black voters from coalescing around supporting her and Biden in their White House bid. From 2004-2015 Harris served as the district attorney for San Francisco and has been criticized for being complicit in perpetuating many of the policies that led to over-policing of minority neighborhoods and mass incarceration for crimes absent viable alternatives.

Harris' career as a prosecutor was complex and the constraints of the criminal justice system in California were rigid. Her progressive criminal justice approach faded as she failed to take actions that could upset the status quo and law enforcement officials. She was criticized for not pushing for progressive reform unless it was “safe” to do so.

Both Biden and Harris have taken outspoken seemingly progressive stances on reforming the current system, making a key issue on the campaign trail. To make good on some of those promises, on Thursday, as a part of his racial equity plan, Biden ordered the DOJ to discontinue their relationships with private prisons by not renewing contracts with them. Many of these institutions are known to have deplorable conditions. Although a small effort, this is a step in the right direction for the new administration in addressing the wide ranging issues within the criminal justice system. Biden also promised to end the mandatory minimum, change police culture by investigating misconduct allegations of misconduct, and overhaul the negative effects that the 1994 crime bill which he has since called a “big mistake.” Biden’s background and career as a senator and vice president should offer him some leverage in moving change forward.

As we wait to see if this administration will make good on its promise to reform the criminal justice system, we can all do our part to support progressive reform. Here are a few things you can do.

  1. Educate yourself on mass incarceration.

  2. Donate to an organization committed to ending mass incarceration.

  3. Contact your representatives and let them know you want more progressive and responsible criminal justice reform.

Finally, families are the largest victims of mass incarceration as they grapple with the emotional, financial and social strain of their loved ones being gone. Providing support to individuals and ways for them to stay connected to their families is perhaps one of the best ways to get involved. Flikshop has created a tool that allows individuals to send photos to loved ones for $1 helping to keep families connected until they reenter society and reunite with their family.

President Biden and vice president Harris have histories of being tough on crime and have had questionable approaches to addressing the systemic inequities in the criminal justice system. The question now is what impact will this administration have on reform and how progressive will it be?

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