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Activists Wait For Biden To Take Bold Action On Criminal Justice Reform


President Biden campaigned on a plan to remake the criminal justice system. He admitted that many of the tough-on-crime positions he staked out 30 years ago just did not work. He said he would focus on drug treatments and on cutting long mandatory prison sentences. NPR's Carrie Johnson has been talking to progressive activists who are waiting for that to happen.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Six days after his inauguration, President Biden signed an executive order phasing out Justice Department contracts with private prisons.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And it is just the beginning of my administration's plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system.

JOHNSON: Just the beginning. Over the past three months, the Justice Department has directed prosecutors to use their discretion when bringing criminal cases rather than throwing the book at every defendant in court. The DOJ has opened sweeping investigations of discrimination by local police departments, with probes underway in Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky. And the Small Business Administration has changed its policy to make emergency loans eligible to formerly incarcerated people. Inimai Chettiar works at the Justice Action Network.

INIMAI CHETTIAR: And when you have 70 million Americans and 1 in 3 adults affected by having criminal records, it actually is a huge thing to allow them to have access to business loans.

JOHNSON: The Biden White House has been talking regularly with Chettiar and others who want to overhaul the justice system. Kevin Ring advocates for people in prison at the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

KEVIN RING: FAMM's been around 30 years. I don't know that we've ever had that kind of outreach from the White House or the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: Ring says he had a guarded optimism about Biden based on his campaign rhetoric.

RING: But there was also some skepticism that he was going to have to tear down the house that he built in some ways through the sentencing laws and prison policies he not only sponsored but bragged about.

JOHNSON: Ring says it's still early, but the White House seems to be trying to lay the groundwork for more foundational change. Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project isn't so sure about that.

KARA GOTSCH: The lip service is good, but we need more, more action.

JOHNSON: Gotsch pushes to reduce incarceration and address racial disparities in the justice system. She's shocked that the administration wants to extend a Trump-era drug policy that exposes more people to stiff mandatory prison sentences if they have small amounts of the drug fentanyl or related substances.

GOTSCH: And that is completely contradictory to what the Biden administration said they believed in, what the attorney general in his confirmation hearing said he believed in. They have articulated support for eliminating mandatory minimums.

JOHNSON: She worries the administration isn't learning from history.

GOTSCH: We want to stop the overdose crisis. We are very concerned about opioids. We're very concerned about fentanyl analogs. But using resources to put more people in prison for longer has never worked in the history of the drug war, and it's not going to work now.

JOHNSON: Other advocates credit the Biden team for supporting bipartisan legislation that would finally equalize the penalties for people caught with crack cocaine. Since the 1980s, offenses involving crack have been punished 100 times more harshly than the powder form of the drug, which has been more popular with white people. Chettiar of the Justice Action Network thinks that bill could become law this year. With Congress so closely divided between the two political parties, the odds of legislation that would transform the justice system are pretty slim. That's why advocates are pushing the White House and DOJ to go big now before time runs out.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "FLOATING WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.