Criminal Justice Reform

Equality, equity, justice, these ideas form the American creed. We have never lived up to it and we haven't always gotten it right, but we've never stopped trying. This is especially true when it comes to our criminal justice system.

The Biden Plan for Strengthening America's Commitment to Justice.

Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States and too many of them are black and brown. To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we're sending to jail, how we treat those in jail, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time. As president, Joe Biden will strengthen America's commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.

The Biden Plan for Strengthening America's Commitment to Justice is based on several core principles:

We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime. No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment. Reducing the number of incarcerated individuals will reduce federal spending on incarceration. These savings should be reinvested in the communities impacted by mass incarceration.

Our criminal justice system cannot be just unless we root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system. Black mothers and fathers should feel confident that their children are safe walking the streets of America. 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. Additionally, women and children are uniquely impacted by the criminal justice system, and the system needs to address their unique needs.

Our criminal justice system must be focused on redemption and rehabilitation. Making sure formerly incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to be productive members of our society is not only the right thing to do, it will also grow our economy.

No one should be profiteering off of our criminal justice system.

Biden calls for the immediate passage of Congressman Bobby Scott's SAFE Justice Act, an evidence-based, comprehensive bill to reform our criminal justice system "from front-end sentencing reform to back end release policies." The Biden Plan will also go further. Biden will take bold action to reduce our prison population, create a more just society, and make our communities safer, by:


Preventing crime is the best way to make our communities safer and reduce incarceration.

Evidence tell us that certain life experiences are strongly correlated with an increased likelihood of future incarceration.

We have to address these underlying factors to provide opportunities for all and prevent crime and incarceration.

Focusing on addressing these underlying factors is not just the right thing to do, it is also good for our communities and our economy. It costs the federal government about $100 per day to hold someone in federal prison. And that dollar amount doesn't begin to capture "the true cost of incarceration" emotional and financial on families whose loved ones are incarcerated. This dollar amount doesn't capture the ways in which mass incarceration can tear apart the fabric of a community. And, it doesn't capture the economic impact of removing incarcerated individuals from the labor force.

The Biden Plan will shift our country's focus from incarceration to prevention.

Create a new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention. To accelerate criminal justice reform at the state and local levels, Biden will create a new grant program inspired by a proposal by the Brennan Center. States, counties, and cities will receive funding to invest in efforts proven to reduce crime and incarceration, including efforts to address some of the factors like illiteracy and child abuse that are correlated with incarceration. In order to receive this funding, 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.

Invest in educational opportunity for all. To truly create opportunity and address one of the key underlying drivers of crime, President Biden will ensure that no child's future is determined by their zip code, parents' income, race, or disability. He'll start by making pre-K available to every three and four year old. He'll triple funding for Title I, the federal program funding schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. This will eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. Biden will also make sure every high school student graduates with either advanced credits or an industry credential in their pocket. And, he'll make community college free for all qualified students. Read Joe Biden's full Plan for Educators, Students, and our Future.

Expand federal funding for mental health and substance use disorder services and research. People experiencing mental health problems and substance use disorders should have access to affordable, quality care long before their situations escalate and they interact with the criminal justice system. The Biden Plan will expand health insurance coverage so more Americans have access to treatment, ensure enforcement of mental health parity laws, and expand funding for mental health services. In addition, Biden will double the number of psychologists, guidance counselors, nurses, social workers, and other health professionals in our schools so our kids get the mental health care they need.

Get people who should be supported with social services instead of in our prisons connected to the help they need. Too often, those in need of mental health care or rehabilitation for a substance use disorder do not get the care that they need. Instead, they end up having interactions with law enforcement that lead to incarceration. The same is true for homeless individuals. That's not fair to those individuals, and it's not fair to police officers. To change the nature of these interactions, the Biden Administration will fund initiatives to partner mental health and substance use disorder experts, social workers, and disability advocates with police departments. These service providers will train police officers to better de-escalate interactions with people in severe emotional distress before they become violent. They'll also help police officers learn how to better approach individuals with certain disabilities, like those with autism or who are deaf, so misunderstanding does not lead to incarceration. And, these service providers will respond to calls with police officers so individuals who should not be in the criminal justice system are diverted to treatment for addiction or mental health problems, or are provided with the housing or other social services they may need.


Expand and use the power of the U.S. Justice Department to address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors' offices. Using authority in legislation spearheaded by Biden as senator, the Obama-Biden Justice Department used pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees to address circumstances of "systemic police misconduct" and to "restore trust between police and communities" in cities such as Ferguson. Yet, the Trump Administration's Justice Department has limited the use of this tool. For example, under the Trump Administration, consent decrees between the Justice Department and police departments must now be signed off on by a political appointee from the Department. And, the Justice Department has set an arbitrary limit on how long such consent decrees can remain in place regardless of whether an end to the agreement is warranted. Under the Biden Administration, the Justice Department will again use its authority to root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing. The Biden Administration will reverse the limitations put in place under President Trump, and Biden will appoint Justice Department leadership who will prioritize the role of using pattern-or-practice investigations to strengthen our justice system. In addition, Biden will push for legislation to clarify that this pattern-or-practice investigation authority can also be used to address systemic misconduct by prosecutors' offices.

Establish an independent Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion. Law enforcement officials' decisions regarding when to arrest, when to charge, and what charges to bring are critical decision-points in our criminal justice system. The charges, for example, can dramatically impact not only what sentence someone ends up with but also whether they are compelled to take a plea bargain. The Biden Administration will create a new task force, placed outside of the U.S. Department of Justice, to make recommendations for tackling discrimination and other problems in our justice system that results from arrest and charging decisions.

Invest in public defenders' offices to ensure defendants' access to quality counsel. To create a fairer criminal justice system, we must ensure that individuals who cannot afford counsel have quality representation. And, access to counsel should be available starting at the moment someone appears before a judge. But, right now, defenders' resources and support are too decentralized and too hard to access. And, as Vice President Biden knows from his own experience leaving a law firm to be a public defender, the wage disparity for prosecutors and defenders limits the ability of defenders' offices to recruit the best and brightest. As president, Biden will expand the Obama-Biden effort to expand resources for public defenders' offices.

Eliminate mandatory minimums. Biden supports an end to mandatory minimums. As president, he will work for the passage of legislation to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level. And, he will give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

End, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity. The Obama-Biden Administration successfully narrowed the unjustified disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. The Biden Administration will eliminate this disparity completely, as then-Senator Biden proposed in 2007. And, Biden will ensure that this change is applied retroactively.

Decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions. Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use. As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions. And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.

End all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment. Biden believes that no one should be imprisoned for the use of illegal drugs alone. Instead, Biden will require federal courts to divert these individuals to drug courts so they receive treatment to address their substance use disorder. He'll incentivize states to put the same requirements in place. And, he'll expand funding for federal, state, and local drug courts.

Expand other effective alternatives to detention. The Biden Administration will also take an evidence-based approach to increase federal funding for other alternatives-to-detention courts and related programs for individuals convicted of non-violent crimes, such as veterans courts and youthful offender courts.

Eliminate the death penalty. Over 160 individuals who've been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated. Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government's example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.

Use the president's clemency power to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes. President Obama used his clemency power more than any of the 10 prior presidents. Biden will continue this tradition and broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes.

End cash bail: Cash bail is the modern-day debtors' prison. The cash bail system incarcerates people who are presumed innocent. And, it disproportionately harms low-income individuals. Biden will lead a national effort to end cash bail and reform our pretrial system by putting in place, instead, a system that is fair and does not inject further discrimination or bias into the process.

Stop jailing people for being too poor to pay fines and fees: Some people end up unable to escape our justice system because of the very fines and fees that the system levies. Biden will use the grant making power of the federal government to incentivize the end of policies that incarcerate people for failing to pay fines and fees. He'll also target policies to revoke driver's licenses for unpaid parking or speeding tickets. And, he'll help individuals incarcerated for six months or longer get a true fresh start by incentivizing states to wipe clean any outstanding traffic fines or fees that would prevent them from obtaining a license. These license-related reforms will not apply to licenses revoked for driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, or other serious driving violations.

Stop corporations from profiteering off of incarceration. Biden will end the federal government's use of private prisons, building off an Obama-Biden Administration's policy rescinded by the Trump Administration. And, he will make clear that the federal government should not use private facilities for any detention, including detention of undocumented immigrants. Biden will also make eliminating private prisons and all other methods of profiteering off of incarceration including diversion programs, commercial bail, and electronic monitoring a requirement for his new state and local prevention grant program. Finally, Biden will support the passage of legislation to crack down on the practice of private companies charging incarcerated individuals and their families outrageously high fees to make calls.

As president, Biden will prioritize reform of the juvenile justice system to make sure we give more children a second chance to live up to their potential. His administration will develop and implement policies in this space based upon input from children and young adults who interacted with the criminal justice system as children.