[11/18/20] – Criminal Justice Reform: What To Expect in President-Elect Joe Biden’s Administration

The Associated Press has called the 2020 presidential race for Joe Biden. In January 2021, President-Elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. His supporters and critics will likely watch anxiously as he starts his first presidential term and begins working on the platform that he and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris campaigned on. Their platform, which has been described as the “most progressive” in generations and very ambitious, seeks to address many of the issues facing our society today, including those inherent in the Criminal justice system. 

According to Biden and Harris’ campaign website, Biden’s plan is to take “bold action” to reduce the prison population, create a more just society, and make communities safer by preventing crime and providing opportunities for all, eliminating racial disparities and ensuring fair sentences, offering second chances, and reducing violence in communities and supporting survivors of violence. The plan highlights the different ways in which the Biden administration will address and confront the key issues within those areas. In a recent article, The Marshall Project, focuses on several key issue areas:

Police reform: Biden’s police reform plans have taken center-stage as the nation continues to grapple with the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans and as Black Lives Matter activists continue to demand justice. Biden, in a statement on the events that transpired in Louisville, Kentucky following the grand jury’s decision in the Taylor case, suggested banning chokeholds, overhauling no-knock warrants, and addressing the use of excessive force. Biden also promised to revitalize federal investigations of departments that demonstrates a pattern of civil rights violations and wanting to “convene cops, social works, and the Black and Brown community,” which highlights his plan to build relationships and work to come up with significant reforms. However, The Marshall Project reported that enforcing police reform changes at the national level is hard to do and that he will likely be limited to “offering funding or threating funding cuts to departments.”

Death penalty: The death penalty is by far one of the most contentious issues in the criminal justice system. Biden promised that he’d work to end the federal government’s use of the death penalty and incentivize states to follow suit. This move, according to the Washington Post, breaks from his past support of the death penalty, and it makes him the first Democratic president-elect since 1988 to take an “anti-death penalty” stance. While Congress is the only branch of government which can “fully” abolish the death penalty, The Marshall Project reports that Biden can “speed up its demise and use symbolism to signal a new era.”

Private prisons: Biden and Harris both pledged to stop corporations from profiteering off of incarceration by ending the federal governments use of private prisons; a move that builds on steps taken by former President Obama. The Biden plan also includes the elimination of other methods of profiteering, such as diversion programs, commercial bail, and electronic incarceration, and the support of legislation that will prevent private corporations from charging inmates and their families high fees to make calls. According to The Marshall Project, the inmates currently held in private prisons can easily be moved by Biden, however, “after that it gets harder.”

Immigration detention: Biden’s immigration plan includes eliminating the use of detention centers for undocumented immigrants, investing in alternatives to detention, such as community-based case management programs, legislation that would reduce the number of ICE arrests by providing undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship, and not allowing the separation of migrant children from their families. According to The Marshall Project, “the only realistic way to make good on that promise [to eliminate for-profit detention centers] is to detain far fewer people.”

Reducing the prison population: Biden’s plan calls for the creation of a $20 billion competitive grant program to “spur” reform at the state, county, and city levels by incentivizing prevention methods, rather than incarceration. According to the plan, funding will be provided to invest in efforts that are proven to reduce both crime and incarceration, such as addressing issues of illiteracy and child abuse. The acquisition of the funds will be contingent on whether states have taken steps to reduce incarceration rates, such as eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes and creating earned credit programs for inmates. These actions would also require an act of Congress.  

As inauguration day approaches, it is important to understand the different aspects of Biden and Harris’ criminal justice platform and the impact that their progressive policies, if implemented, will have on the criminal justice system. While, their plan can bring about real change and reform to a system riddled with issues, the fate of Biden and Harris’ success in fulfilling their campaign promises will rest in their ability to garner bipartisan support for their progressive policies and whether Republicans retain control of the Senate following Georgia’s upcoming run-off elections scheduled to take place on January 5, 2021.

Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.

The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.



  • Writing: What issues does Biden’s plan, “The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice,” address? What reforms does he plan to implement in order to address them?
  • Debate: Do you believe that Biden will be successful in implementing some of his criminal justice reform policies or do you think his campaign promises were too “ambitious”?
  • Poll: Policing reform is the most important criminal justice related issue and it is one that should be prioritized alongside the pandemic. (Agree or Disagree).
  • Short Answer: Explain why President-Elect Joe Biden’s criminal justice reform platform is considered to be the “most progressive” in generations.

Cover Image: Manhattan, New York. November 9, 2020. Times Square tribute to president elect Joe Biden. ©iStockphoto.com/Massimo Giachetti

Which component of the criminal justice system would you like to see more coverage of in future Lecture Sparks?

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