The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden touts criminal justice record — but advocates want more action quickly

Activist groups penned a letter accusing Biden’s Justice Department of being no better on some issues than it was under former president Donald Trump

President Biden delivers the keynote address at the South Carolina State University's 2021 Fall Commencement Ceremony in Orangeburg, S.C., on Dec. 17, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

As President Biden touts his criminal justice reform record after 11 months in office, advocates are thankful, yet disappointed his administration hasn’t done more to advance fairness and equity in law enforcement.

Biden agrees more must be done.

“On criminal justice reform,” Biden told a South Carolina State University commencement this month, “we need it from top to bottom.”

He praised the Justice Department’s ban on police use of chokeholds, restrictions on no-knock warrants and body cam requirements for federal officers, while pushing for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on police abuse and accountability that remains stalled in the Senate. Biden reminded the audience that the department is ending the use of private prisons, no longer makes federal prosecutors seek the harshest penalties and has opened police misconduct investigations in four cities. Even critics impatient with administration actions celebrate Biden’s judicial confirmations, which include many women, African Americans and other people of color, as well as lawyers with civil rights and public defender experience.

But critical issues have emerged in the past month, including an inconclusive Nov. 30 Zoom meeting with top White House officials and the release of a government watchdog report warning that a planned FBI use of force database is nearing collapse. Advocacy groups also posted a pointed 12-page letter that accused the Justice Department of being no better on some issues than it was under former president Donald Trump — “in some instances doubling down on the failed policies of the past administration instead of charting a bold new course.”

The Dec. 14 letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland from eight organizations complained about administration decisions and inactions that “raise concerns for us about the progress the Department of Justice is making on its racial justice priorities.” Signing the letter were the NAACP, Amnesty International USA, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Drug Policy Alliance, Federal Public and Community Defenders, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Sentencing Project and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which itself represents more than 230 national groups.

Starting the letter by reminding Garland that “the Biden administration has publicly articulated a commitment to advancing racial justice in the federal criminal-legal system,” the organizations stressed “the importance of swift action,” adding that “the Biden administration and the Department of Justice must assert its commitment to promoting justice and opportunity for all people in America.”

Garland moved in that direction on Tuesday, when he reversed Trump administration policy and said federal inmates who had been released from prison to limit covid-19’s spread will be allowed to remain home and “not unnecessarily returned to prison” if they “have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement.”

That was a top issue for Kevin Ring, president of FAMM (formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums), who was among advocates on the Zoom meeting who were irritated by administration policies. Other organizations at the meeting were the Leadership Conference, Justice Action Network, R Street Institute, the Sentencing Project and Justice Roundtable.

Now, Ring says Garland’s announcement “is excellent news for thousands of people and their families to get before the holidays … and we are very grateful to the Biden administration.” Also effusive was Wade Henderson, interim Leadership Conference president and CEO, who declared Tuesday “a triumphant day” and a move “toward justice and racial equity.”

But advocates remain frustrated by other issues. While applauding some administration actions, the letter listed, in some detail, areas where they would like quick action, including:

• Death penalty: The groups said the federal government “should end the pursuit of capital punishment in all cases, and neither seek nor carry out the death penalty.” Garland halted federal executions in July pending a review, but advocates want a full commitment against capital punishment.

• Mandatory minimum sentences: The letter said the administration’s support for policies that subject “disproportionately Black and Brown individuals, to extreme mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses despite previous commitments to end mandatory minimum sentences” sets “a dangerous, radical new precedent … and continues to promote criminalization rather than public health recourse.”

• Marijuana: “DOJ (Department of Justice) must commit to ending the prosecution of marijuana offenses … remove it from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act … as well as push for the expungement of past and current marijuana convictions,” the letter said.

Advocates are also disturbed by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that warned of the potential collapse of a planned FBI database that would collect information on use of force data from police departments. As my colleague Tom Jackman wrote, “due to insufficient participation from law enforcement agencies, the FBI … may never publish use of force incident data from the collection.” Although released this month, the report looks at collection efforts from fiscal 2016 through 2020, before Biden took office. In its response to GAO, the Justice Department said “the FBI believes” it will get the needed data.

William “Bill” Underwood, a senior fellow with the Sentencing Project, believes in a wait-and-see approach to Biden’s South Carolina pledge that “this administration is going to continue to fight for meaningful police reform in Congress and through additional executive actions.”

The former federal prisoner had a special perspective when he joined experienced professional advocates on the Zoom meeting that was “short, but it still was productive.” He would not have been in such a gathering a year ago, because he was incarcerated on drug charges. Released in January after 33 years, Underwood, 68, now fights mass incarceration. He linked his long imprisonment to legislation Biden supported as a senator that included mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Now, Underwood wants Biden’s criminal justice efforts to succeed.

After listening to the high-level presidential appointees at the meeting — including Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, Public Engagement Director Cedric L. Richmond and Counsel to the President Dana Remus — Underwood left feeling “hopeful … if they do half of what they said.”

Read more:

Bureau of Prisons can keep inmates in home confinement after coronavirus emergency ends

FBI may shut down police use-of-force database due to lack of police participation

Police seize property without charges and pocket the proceeds. There’s a bipartisan move to crack down.

The pandemic could drive another national health crisis, GAO warns: Anxiety