Criminal reform advocates who want to have the justice system overhauled are expressing frustration at the Biden administration after the White House has not moved on the issue in any meaningful way despite the president being in office for nearly a year.
Specifically, advocates want changes to clemency as well as sentencing reform, but thus far neither President Joe Biden nor the Democrat-controlled Congress has made any progress.
“I think we’re at a point where we’re saying mere lip service isn’t enough,” Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told NPR. “We want to see some concrete action.”
Such actions may include clemency for a couple of thousand people who were released to home confinement by the Trump administration as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Advocates say that Biden could simply sign an order allowing those people to remain free but he has yet to do so despite being pressured about it for months.
“To me, it’s a bellwether,” noted Kevin Ring, the leader of FAMM, a group that advocates against mandatory minimum prison sentences.
“Because if the administration won’t address this, and address it immediately, I don’t know what hope we can have that other things are going to get done,” he told NPR, adding that he hears daily from people afraid they’re going to be sent back to federal lock-up when the pandemic emergency is over.
“For somebody who isn’t sure whether they can get a lease, start a family, start a relationship, begin college courses, get on with their life, it’s incredibly callous to say, ‘Oh, we haven’t made a decision yet and we don’t have to because there’s a pandemic still going on,'” Ring said.
But White House spokesman Michael Gwin told the outlet via a written statement that Biden has been taking steps to reform criminal justice “since his first day in office.”
“This includes restoring the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, implementing new restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement, ending contracts with private detention facilities, and expanding access to re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals,” Gwin noted.
The left-wing advocacy groups have praised the Biden Justice Department for rescinding a Trump-era memo that instructed federal prosecutors to seek and pursue the most serious charges for crimes. They are also supportive of the DoJ’s four major civil rights lawsuits against local police departments.
However, the groups also note that the federal prison population has grown by around 5,000 inmates since Biden was inaugurated, says Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher at the Sentencing Project.
The prison population began falling under President Obama’s administration and continued under Trump, Ghandnoosh added, noting that the trend has ended under Biden and the population is increasing.
“We would expect to hear from the attorney general and the president very vocal and unequivocal support for federal sentencing reform that’s being considered right now and that could help to give those initiatives an important boost,” she said.
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