Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose long record on criminal justice matters has cast a shadow over the early months of his presidential campaign, has unveiled a comprehensive plan aimed at combating mass incarceration and reducing “racial, gender and income-based disparities in the system.”
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.
But on Tuesday, Mr. Biden, the former vice president, introduced a wide-ranging criminal justice reform proposal that his campaign said sought to reduce incarceration, and the toll it takes on poor communities and communities of color, at every stage, from addressing “underlying factors” that start as early as childhood to calling for the elimination of the death penalty.
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.
Mr. Biden’s proposal includes plans to address societal dynamics that affect children and are linked with crime and future incarceration, along with a heavy emphasis on reforming the juvenile justice system.
In proposals that would aim to reverse the legacies of the 1994 crime bill, Mr. Biden called for eliminating discrepancies in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine and for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, repeating and building on points he has made on the campaign trail. He also called for an end to cash bail.
And the plan supports eliminating the death penalty through legislation at the federal level and incentives at the state level, a position that is a sharp departure from the position Mr. Biden vocally embraced in the 1990s and throughout his Senate career.
The proposal calls for empowering the Justice Department to “root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing” and for an independent task force focused on prosecutorial discretion.
For people who are re-entering society after serving prison sentences, Mr. Biden sets a goal of “ensuring” that all formerly incarcerated people have housing when they are released. That initiative would start with instructing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to “only contract with entities that are open to housing individuals looking for a second chance,” as well as increasing funding for transitional housing.
His plan, which builds in part on several Obama administration initiatives, arrives just over a week before the second presidential debates.
In his first presidential primary debate of the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden, who continues to enjoy strong support from African-American voters, found himself on the defensive as Senator Kamala Harris of California ripped into his record on civil rights. She criticized his opposition to many busing measures dating to the 1970s and his warm recollections last month about his working relationships with segregationists in the Senate. Mr. Biden has expressed regret for those remarks but has been unapologetic about many other aspects of his record.
At that debate, however, he did note his time spent as a public defender, an experience referred to in his proposal, along with a call to “expand resources for public defenders’ offices.”
Mr. Biden is also urging a $20 billion competitive grant program aimed at encouraging investment in preventing incarceration and crime at the state and local level by targeting issues such as “illiteracy and child abuse that are correlated with incarceration.” It comes with the stipulation that “states will have to eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, institute earned credit programs and take other steps to reduce incarceration rates without impacting public safety.”
His campaign also calls for the investment of $1 billion a year in juvenile justice reform, as well as more stringent protections of juvenile records and expanded funding for programs and activities for when children are not in school.
While the issue of criminal justice has been a thorny one for Mr. Biden, it has also been challenging for others in the presidential field, from Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., whose city was engulfed in a crisis over a fatal police shooting of a black man, to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who as a congressman in 1994 voted for the crime bill.
In some areas, Mr. Biden is not as bold as many of his rivals. While he supports decriminalizing marijuana and expunging prior cannabis use convictions, he continues to stop short of supporting legalizing marijuana across the board.
And the proposal makes overtures to law enforcement as well: “Black mothers and fathers should feel confident that their children are safe walking the streets of America,” the proposal reads. “And, when a police officer pins on that shield and walks out the door, the officer’s family should know they’ll come home at the end of the day.”