This is the first of our "Trump vs Biden" Perspectives Blogs, in which we'll analyze and explain each candidate's positions on major issues leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This blog will examine each candidate's stances on matters pertaining to criminal justice.
Biden: Shift from incarceration to prevention
In the 1980s and 90s, Biden pushed for harsher punishment for drug offenses and wrote an anti-crime bill that led to much of the incarceration partially reversed by the First Step Act. Biden later worked to reverse these measures with the Second Chance Act and the Fair Sentencing Act. His current priority is shifting the country’s focus from incarceration to prevention by reducing incarceration, addressing systemic inequality and focusing on rehabilitation programs.
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Trump: Law & Order, plus reform for racial fairness
Historically tough-on-crime, Trump’s administration supported tougher penalties for drug crimes, defended law enforcement. It also supported greater penalties for those who took down or defaced monuments, and sent federal agents to some protest areas that experienced looting and arson. He also passed the bi-partisan criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act. Trump’s second-term agenda promises to offer more support for law enforcement, end cashless bail, and bring “violent groups like ANTIFA to justice.”
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Biden: Incarceration to Prevention
Like Trump, Biden also pushed for harsh punishment during the war on drugs and mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1989, Biden publicly criticized George Bush’s plan, saying it “doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” As head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden wrote laws, including the 1994 anti-crime bill, that enacted tougher sentences for hard drug offenses. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was partly written by Biden, brought more funding to prisons, which in turn brought about more incarceration and more prisons.
Since then Biden has worked to reverse some of these measures; he supported the Second Chance Act, in 2008, which provides counseling services to former inmates. Biden also pushed the Fair Sentencing Act, a bill that reduced tough prison sentences for hard drugs. In June, Biden said concerns about his 1994 crime bill were “legitimate,” but also that voters should judge him based on his current policy plans.
Biden’s campaign details his criminal justice reform plan’s several core principles. Those include reducing the number of people incarcerated while also reducing crime; addressing racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system; and focus on redemption and rehabilitation and action to stop people from profiteering off of our criminal justice system. He proposed a $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention. Biden’s other proposed measures to reach his core principles include increased rehabilitation for formerly incarcerated people, ending the death penalty, ending private prisons, ending cash bail, and decriminalizing marijuana and eliminating sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.
Trump: Law and Order, plus reform for racial fairness
President Donald Trump has a history of advocating for “tough-on-crime” policies. He supported the death penalty for the “Central Park Five” back in 1989, and in his 2000 book The America We Deserve, he wrote, “Tough crime policies are the most important form of national defense.” During his first campaign in 2015, he said “we have to get a lot tougher” on crime.
During his first term, Trump’s administration signed into law a criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, which gives nonviolent offenders a chance to reenter society. Congress had attempted to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) in 2015, but it was blocked in 2016. The First Step Act, passed in 2018, carries some key elements of the SRCA. Trump also commuted the sentence of, and later pardoned, Alice Marie Johnson, who served more than 20 years for a nonviolent drug conspiracy offense.
Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department limited investigations and lawsuits of local and state police departments that were accused of civil rights misconduct; his administration has also encouraged federal prosecutors to pursue more punitive punishments for lower-level offenses and the death penalty for drug traffickers “where appropriate under current law.” During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Trump signed an executive order calling for harsher prison sentences for those who damaged or took down monuments; he also sent federal agents to protest areas like Portland, Chicago and Albuquerque.
Trump’s second-term agenda promises to fully fund and hire more police officers, increase penalties for assaults on officers, prosecute drive-by shootings as domestic terrorism, reverse reforms that would end cash bail, and to bring “violent groups” like antifa to justice.
This piece was written by News Editor Micaela Ricaforte (Center bias) and Director of Dialogue Matt Byrne (Center bias).