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Brian Pitman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
On Jan. 20, former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris will begin their tenures as president and vice president. One of the pressing issues they face is criminal justice “reform.” What can we expect from the Biden regime on criminal justice?
The Biden administration will not defund the police. In June, Biden said “No, I don’t support defunding the police.” His record backs up his statement. As a U.S. senator in 1993, Biden bragged that every crime bill “has had the name of … Joe Biden.” He worked with segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond on many of these crime bills, and compared himself to Richard Nixon.
Biden wrote the 1994 crime bill, the largest crime bill in history, which expanded the number of police officers and prisons nationwide. He has continued to defend his role in crime legislation, particularly the 1994 crime bill, during the primary and general election cycles. Additionally, while Biden was rightfully lauded for his empathetic response to his own son’s cocaine use, he was one of the original architects of the war on drugs, calling to “hold every drug user accountable,” writing and supporting numerous bills that imprisoned people for drug use and possession.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris also faced questions on her criminal justice record. These include her opposition to overturning wrongful convictions, violating the accused’s constitutional rights and supporting legislation that allowed for prosecuting parents of children who missed school. During the Democratic presidential primary she defended these positions and even promoted herself as a “progressive prosecutor.” It was this record that likely doomed her presidential campaign.
What policies has the incoming administration included in its platform? For policing, Biden, Harris and the Democratic Party are advocating for implementing a national use of force standard that bans “the use of chokeholds and carotid holds.” They also want to establish no-knock warrants standards and require nonviolent tactical and implicit bias training for officers. These steps have been implemented in some departments across the country. For example, the New York Police Department banned chokeholds in 1993, years before the 2014 killing of Eric Garner. The officer who killed Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta in June completed de-escalation training in January. In San Jose, cops shot rubber bullets at the activist who trained new police recruits on implicit bias.
Biden and Harris have also outlined a plan to “reinvigorate community-oriented policing” by investing $300 million for localities to hire more police officers to interact with the community. Evidence shows that community policing expands police power over the community by increasing police budgets, presence and surveillance. Additionally, Biden and Harris call for police departments to reflect the racial diversity of the area. Yet, studies demonstrate that racial diversity does not improve police-community relations. These reforms do not encourage defunding and divesting from policing in any way.
As for more broad criminal legal system changes, Biden and Harris have advocated for decriminalizing marijuana (though Biden does not support full legalization) and ending federal use of private prisons and private immigration detention centers. They also want to implement reformist measures like ending cash bail, ending solitary confinement and “greater use of probation and problem-solving courts.” However, these reformist measures will only expand the net of the criminal legal system and preserve the racial inequities as many examples show.
Transformative changes to policing and the criminal legal system must be considered, as the COVID-19 pandemic has left many people in mental distress and economically insecure. Soon, when states lift eviction moratoriums, houselessness will increase. This requires federal government intervention in economic aid, student loan waivers, mental health and other areas that address the material needs of people, particularly people of color. Without these changes, contact with police and the criminal legal system will increase, as these institutions are most likely to interact with the poor, people of color, people without homes and people with mental illness.