The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law today released A Federal Agenda for Criminal Justice Reform, a set of legislative proposals and executive actions for the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress. If adopted, these recommendations would address problems in criminal justice that the Trump administration neglected or made worse. The plan covers racial bias and excessive force in policing, federal funding incentivizing overpolicing and overincarceration, and the lack of transparency and accountability in U.S. prisons, among other areas overdue for reform.
“After years of bipartisan progress on criminal justice reform, the Trump administration took us backwards. The country needs a reset, with the federal government prioritizing a reversal of harmful policies that made America the world’s number one incarcerator,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and co-author of the plan. “One important way to reverse the decades of federal funding that played a role in creating mass incarceration is to enact and implement the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. For too long, federal dollars have rewarded states that increase arrests and imprisonment. It’s time to use federal dollars to begin to reverse that harm, by incentivizing states to pursue policies and programs that reduce both crime and incarceration at the same time.”
The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, developed by the Brennan Center in 2015, would reduce the state prison population by 20 percent over 10 years by distributing $20 billion to states that succeed in lowering their prison populations and their crime rates. The bill was introduced in Congress in 2019, and it is in the Biden-Harris administration’s criminal justice platform.
“The new administration and the 117th Congress are beginning their terms when the American public is acutely aware of the systemic racism and overuse of excessive or deadly force in policing,” said Ram Subramanian, managing director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and co-author of the plan. “The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others became 2020’s rallying cry for police accountability, and Washington must respond, first and most urgently by re-committing the Department of Justice to police reform and civil rights investigations of police departments.”
The Brennan Center’s plan calls for the Department of Justice to return to “pattern or practice” investigations of law enforcement agencies’ conduct that “deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States” (Sec. 242, Title 18). Between 1994 and 2016, the Justice Department conducted 69 such investigations. Since 2016, the Trump administration has opened one.
In addition to the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act and the resumption of pattern-or-practice investigations, A Federal Agenda for Criminal Justice Reform includes these recommendations, among others:
- Create an independent oversight body with broad authority and capacity to monitor federal prisons and identify and prevent abuse against people behind bars
- Restructure executive clemency so that it is used more routinely and transparently, with clear standards
- Encourage the demilitarization of law enforcement by eliminating the 1033 program, which transfers military-grade weapons to state and local law enforcement
- Repeal all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and the 18:1 disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine
- Revive the Justice Department’s Collaborative Reform Initiative, which had worked with cities as an alternative to federal litigation against them, addressing racial bias, use-of-force policies, or the departments’ relationships with their communities
- Fully fund the First Step Act
- Adopt national standards to place stricter limits on use of force by law enforcement
- Provide grants and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies for implementing additional metrics for evaluating police that capture public safety more fully, like the number of lives preserved in dangerous police encounters or the successful diversion of people to community-based services
- Eliminate the federal death penalty
The report, A Federal Agenda for Criminal Justice Reform, can be found here.
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize – and when necessary, defend – our country’s systems of democracy and justice.