While many first strides were made during Biden’s first week in office, other issues that were highlighted in his presidential campaign have yet to be addressed. According to Law360, the following are top issues criminal justice reform advocates are waiting for President Biden to address:
COVID-19 in Prisons and jails: According to The Marshall Project, at least 356,000 people in prison have been infected with the virus. The administration can help stop the spread of the coronavirus by reducing incarcerated populations to allow for social distancing, which some jails and prisons have already started to do. President Biden recently announced his new plan to buy 200 million more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, vowing to vaccinate 300 million people by the beginning of fall 2021. When constructing new plans on who should receive the next round of vaccinations, prioritizing incarcerated people could help slow these outbreaks and ease inhumane conditions in prisons where social distancing is not physically possible, and where masks and sanitizer are not available. We hear consistently from our College Guild students how overcrowded and uncontrolled the virus is within prison walls, and the lack of any sort of precautions to stop the spread.
End Mandatory Minimum and Life Sentences: The Federal drug laws, substantially revised by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, carry very long maximum sentences -- up to 40 years for some quantities, and up to life imprisonment for somewhat larger quantities. This act also requires a minimum sentence of 5 years for smaller drug charges. A law like this puts too much focus on criminalization, especially in communities of color, rather than finding non-criminalizing ways to address issues in communities. Not only could President Biden address decriminalization of drug use, but he could also address the issue of mass incarceration by pushing for federal legislation that ends mandatory minimum and life sentences.
Expand Incarceration Alternatives and Community Programs: Leaving prison with a college degree or certification makes it much less likely that a person will return to prison, a key statistic that supports the College Guild mission. Under the Trump administration, The First Step Act, a law designed to ultimately reduce recidivism, had two main objectives; to provide reductions in some federal sentences and to help former inmates rejoin society. The First Step Act seemed like a move in the right direction for prison reform activists. However, the law has yet to be implemented the way it was intended. If implemented correctly, inmates will be able to receive their earned credits under this law and could result in wardens finally giving real weight to compassionate release requests while the Covid-19 pandemic continues. With the newly signed executive action not to renew DOJ contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities, the Justice Department will be freeing up millions of dollars. Advocates believe the Biden administration should redirect those funds to incarceration alternatives, community programs, and educational resources for inmates. A College Guild education has been shown to produce the following changes in imprisoned students. Expanded incarceration alternatives and community programs would only allow for more of the same:
Building an identity as a student instead of as a prisoner, convict, inmate, failure, etc.
Increased sense of achievement
Growth in self-confidence
Ability to use time constructively doing something interesting
Increased sense of empowerment
Increased sense of control over their life
Decreased levels of loneliness
Increased levels of self-esteem
Enhanced sense of direction in life
Each of these priorities among criminal justice reform activists aligns with the ultimate goal of College Guild: to reduce recidivism by fostering mutual respect between incarcerated people and the community outside prison walls. Administering the vaccine to help stop the uncontrolled spread of the virus within prisons will improve inhumane conditions where many prisoners are completely unprotected against the virus. Ending mandatory minimum and maximum life sentences in conjunction with decriminalizing drug use will lower rates of incarceration. With fewer incarcerated people, College Guild can reach a greater percentage of prisoners. With more educational resources available in prison, we and other education and community programs, along with re-entry programs, can produce positive effects and reduce rates of recidivism, driven by principles of respect. Moving forward, we hope the new administration will have long-lasting effects to coincide with the mission and work of College Guild.