Not to be caught off guard a second time defending his decades of political service, former vice president Joe Biden took the opportunity to release a criminal justice reform plan just days before the next Democratic debate. The move is clearly designed to try and get back on offense and advance his candidacy as one which is more than just based on being President Obama’s vice president for 8 years.
Some details on the proposal from CNN which is, of course, viewing the plan as part of Biden’s impending debate “battle” with Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, both candidates, as CNN notes, “strong critics” of Biden’s role in passing the 1994 crime bill:
Former Vice President Joe Biden is proposing a $20 billion grant program aimed at pressuring states to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes and institute programs that offer inmates opportunities to earn credit toward their sentences for completing educational and rehabilitation programs.
The grants, part of a criminal justice plan Biden’s campaign unveiled Tuesday, would go to what Biden’s campaign calls efforts proven to reduce incarceration — including combating illiteracy and child abuse. Biden’s campaign said the grants are inspired by a proposal from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.
His plan includes addressing police and prosecutorial misconduct through the Justice Department by returning to the Obama administration’s use of pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees to address systemic police misconduct, which have faced more limited use under Trump’s administration. He would also urge Congress to pass legislation that would expand that power to convert the conduct of prosecutors’ offices.
And it calls for legislation that would end the death penalty on the federal level — a reversal from his support for the death penalty during his six terms in the Senate.
Biden’s plan also calls for a task force created outside the Justice Department to make recommendations to address discrimination that results from arrest and charging decisions.
He would increase spending from $60 million appropriated in 2019 to $1 billion per year on juvenile justice, including launching a new grant program that would push states to put non-violent youth in alternatives to prison.
The plan itself is nothing too groundbreaking, short of Biden’s reversal on the death penalty for federal cases, but it will give him cover and provide him a way to talk more about what he wants to do if he’s elected President rather than spend time defending or discussing what he’s already done as a Senator.
In some ways, however, pushing this plan just days before a debate is a signal to his opponents that he has some weakness in this area. You can be absolutely certain that the Harris campaign, as well as Booker, and others, will be looking to take another hard swing at Biden on this topic since it seemed to knock him back a few pegs and put him in a timid defensive posture.
The New York Times points out that Biden is well aware of this weakness, and the first debate probably underscored it for the campaign and demonstrated the areas where his primary opponents are willing to go to score points:
In his more than three decades as a senator, Mr. Biden was a tough-on-crime Democrat who could be impatient with concerns about the societal dynamics that contribute to crime, and he championed the 1994 crime bill that many experts now associate with mass incarceration.
That history has presented a challenge for Mr. Biden as he mounts his third bid for the presidency, with many progressives questioning his commitment to reforming a criminal justice system that disproportionately ensnares people of color.
Not only has Biden released the crime bill, but he’s also addressing some key constituency groups this week:
The proposal comes before Mr. Biden is set to address two events this week focused on racial justice: a gathering of the N.A.A.C.P. in Detroit on Wednesday, and a conference of the National Urban League in Indianapolis on Thursday. On Tuesday, he will also tour a community-based center for underserved youth in New Orleans with his national campaign co-chair, Representative Cedric Richmond, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Beyond his credential as being vice president to America’s first African-American president, Biden still needs to work incredibly hard to retain his appeal to minorities as he swims in a literal sea of minority primary opponents. We have touched on the fact that identity politics is en vogue right now, and that each Democratic candidate is trying to pander to their particular ethnicity in ways they think will help garner more votes.
Biden doesn’t have the same luxury or background so his campaign has come to the conclusion that playing defense won’t cut it, he needs to push further and harder to hedge against someone like Harris using his political past against him and she did in the first debate, especially on contentious topics such as the 1994 crime bill.
The second Democratic debate takes place next week on July 30 and 31 on CNN.