Black Voters Wonder: What Does Biden Presidency Mean For Justice System Reform?

In about 5 weeks, the United States will close the book on the tumultuous presidency of Donald Trump, and open the book on the new Joe Biden era.

And one of the most pressing issues confronting the new President besides the raging coronavirus pandemic, a looming housing crisis, widespread unemployment, and a politically and racially polarized society will be the nation’s racially imbalanced justice system, and how to reform it.

And justice system reform is what many Black voters had on their minds when they went to the polls, turning out in record numbers, to make sure they did their part to vote Trump out while looking to Biden, the former vice president, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, the first woman, and Black and Asian vice president in U.S. history, to lead the nation to a fairer justice system.

As it stands, Black men in particular account for huge pluralities of the nation’s correctional inmates–even though they account for around only 6% of the country’s population. The nation’s school-to-prison pipeline has been largely to blame. But so have sentencing guidelines and minimum mandatories, which have sent generations of Black men and women to prison.

Thus far, the incoming President has indicated he will use the president’s clemency power to release people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes; end all incarceration for drug use alone, and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment; end the school to prison pipeline by doubling the number of mental health professionals in schools; ensure that people leaving prison have housing, by expanding funding for halfway houses; and use grants to encourage states to place “non-violent” youth in community-based alternatives to prison.

At the top of the list in the minds of many Black Americans is a pressing desire to see broad change and reform in police culture–as polls show Black voters prefer meaningful police reform as opposed to police defunding.

The need for police reform is especially potent in the Black community, which has seen a shocking number of police shootings involving unarmed Black people murdered by law enforcement officials.

Many justice system reform advocates say it will take all of those steps and additional ones to begin to roll back years of regressive policies that have kept many Black people locked into a cycle of poverty and incarceration.

And the new President’s efforts will be closely observed by an expectant Black voting public, who heard Biden’s promises on the campaign trail and are well aware of Biden’s role in implementing a crippling 1994 crime bill eagerly signed by President Bill Clinton that scapegoated young Black men–a law that is viewed by many in the Black community as the impetus that opened the door for hundreds of thousands of Black people to be jailed and imprisoned.

Biden served for 8 years under President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black President, a commander-in-chief beloved by many Black Americans but who is also viewed as a President whose two terms in office yielded little in the way of positive justice system reform benefitting Black people.

Biden, whose support from Black voters resuscitated a campaign that at one point appeared to be teetering on the verge of collapse, will be expected to do substantially more to deliver for the Black populace than former President Barack Obama delivered.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (left) led fight for imposition of Three Strikes Law; current Gov. Ron DeSantis opposes felon voting rights

President Biden will likely have little aid from red state governors in places such as Florida, where state leaders have long embraced draconian get-tough approaches to crime rates such as “three strikes” laws that have led to mass incarceration in the state.

Vice President Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who gained national acclaim for efforts at reforming San Francisco’s justice system, is expected to play a pivotal role in helping lead the push for substantial reform.

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