A Promising Future for Criminal Justice Reform?

A Promising Future for Criminal Justice Reform?

As part of our observation of Black History Month, we reviewed President Biden’s statement on Racial Equity: “The promise of our nation is that every American has an equal chance to get ahead, yet persistent systemic racism and barriers to opportunity have denied this promise for so many. President Biden is putting equity at the center of the agenda with a whole of government approach to embed racial justice across Federal agencies, policies, and programs. And President Biden will take bold action to advance a comprehensive equity agenda to deliver criminal justice reform, end disparities in healthcare access and education, strengthen fair housing, and restore Federal respect for Tribal sovereignty, among other actions, so that everyone across America has the opportunity to fulfill their potential” (whitehouse.gov). We are, of course, particularly interested in his promise to deliver criminal justice reform. 

You can read more about the role of racial inequity in our work here 

The Private Prison Industry

For context, Executive Orders by President Biden and federal laws passed by Congress (like the First Step Act) are unlikely to have much effect on our clients. Executive Orders and federal laws only apply to federal prisoners, about 120,000 people. The women we serve have been incarcerated in local jails and state prisons; and are currently on probation through the Virginia Department of Corrections, which means their conditions are subject to state and local laws. Federal laws will not apply to their circumstances, with a few exceptions that we discuss below.

On January 26, 2021 President Biden signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Justice not to renew its contracts with privately operated prisons. While this doesn’t directly benefit the women we serve, it is an important step in curtailing an industry that has a financial interest in the continuation of mass incarceration. Virginia does not contract with privately operated prisons to incarcerate women; however, the industry’s reach does extend into many local and state jails and prisons in the Commonwealth. Jails and prisons frequently utilize for-profit, privatized communication platforms, for-profit, privatized commissaries and for-profit, privatized healthcare within their facilities.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

During his campaign, President Biden also pledged $1 billion per year in the effort to dramatically decrease and eventually end juvenile incarceration. The proposed plan is to reinvest in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection and to provide alternatives to juvenile imprisonment. Under the Trump administration, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection was reinstated but received little to no funding. President Biden’s promise to reinvest will allow the office to provide legal counsel to juvenile defendants and ensure that juvenile records are expunged.

President Biden’s plan also aims to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by providing schools with much needed guidance, so they are better equipped to handle difficult situations with students without the use of suspension, expulsion, or police interference. When students are pushed out of the education system, they are more likely to fall into the criminal justice system. Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline means putting money into after-school programs, sports, community centers, and summer job opportunities to give students productive, healthy ways to spend their time and participate in their communities.

Many of our clients have first-hand experience of the school-to-prison pipeline. Of the 30 women currently in our Residential program, almost half have spent time in juvenile detention and almost all of them were suspended or expelled as juveniles. Friends of Guest House’s mission ultimately seeks to end the cycle of incarceration that often starts at a young age. The policies that President Biden plans to implement leave us hopeful for a better future.

Mandatory Minimums

Another obstacle for people in the criminal justice system that President Biden plans to tackle is mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums were established by a series of laws beginning in the mid 1970s and leading to the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act. The Act, in addition to increasing the severity of certain crimes in the eyes of the law, established the United States Sentencing Commission whose primary purpose was to standardize sentencing across the country. These mandatory minimum laws present the clear conflict of oversimplifying the very complex nature of crime, which for our clients is a web of trauma, addiction, mental health issues and poverty. The result is that people end up serving sentences much longer than necessary and judges have lost much of their sentencing powers.

Throughout his campaign, President Biden had to defend himself against critics who cited his support of the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, as well as his support of the 1994 Crime Bill which established even harsher sentencing guidelines and significantly increased prison funding. His platform promises to try to undo much of the damage that was done with the passing of the two bills and others like them.

Unfortunately, President Biden does not have the power to outright repeal all of the mandatory minimum laws because many of them exist at the state level. However, he does have a significant amount of influence over states through federal funding incentives and through his appointment powers in the Department of Justice. Most mandatory minimum laws apply to drug offenses that account for 29% of women’s convictions. If President Biden follows through with the objectives laid out in his platform, we are hopeful there will be a shift from punitive punishment to restorative practices that will ultimately allow more women to reenter the community successfully. This goal lies at the heart of all the work that we do here at Friends of Guest House.