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Failed Promises and Cruel Policies: Criminal Justice Reform in the 2024 Presidential Election

With tensions flaring among Republican presidential hopefuls, criminal charges stacking up against former president Donald Trump, and concerns rising among Democrats about President Biden's abilities, the 2024 presidential election has already spawned thousands of chaotic memes and news articles detailing the race. So many voters are focused on issues like abortion, gun control, and immigration that they have neglected to consider a topic just as pressing: candidates' views regarding criminal justice reform.

President Biden and former president Trump are incredibly close in the polls, raising the possibility that the 2024 election will be a rematch between the two candidates. Among the Democratic candidates, Biden leads by 55.7% in the polls, while Trump leads by 41.3% among Republicans (FiveThirtyEight). Out of the candidates, Biden and Trump also have the most extensive track records related to criminal justice reform, as they have both established various policies—some negative, some positive—targeting the United States justice system.

President Biden and former president Donald Trump both claim that they support criminal justice reform, with Biden supporting a variety of progressive reforms and Trump endorsing some plans to improve the justice system and opposing others. Politico's profile of both candidates during the 2020 election cycle noted that both Trump and Biden oppose mandatory minimum sentencing. Trump championed the First Step Act, which "shortened some mandatory minimum sentences" and led to decreased sentences for many prisoners. Biden stated that "he will work with Congress to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences" (Politico). While Biden has not yet repealed mandatory minimum sentences, he appears to be working toward that goal, and he declared in October 2022 that "he would pardon anyone with a federal conviction of simple possession of marijuana" (Sherman).

Additionally, Biden has stated that he supports efforts to commute sentences, prevent individuals from imprisonment based on unpaid fines, ban the death penalty, increase learning opportunities for the incarcerated, and greatly decrease the use of solitary confinement (Politico). While, as president, he has taken steps toward some of his goals, issuing multiple pardons and funding "community violence intervention programs," he has not yet banned the death penalty. He has done nothing to reduce solitary confinement (Bates). In 2022, "'restrictive housing' increased 7% from May to September and more than 11% from spring 2021" (Ortiz). Despite failing to fulfill his promises in multiple areas, Biden did work with the Department of Justice to "end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine" in December 2022, an action that Trump took steps toward during his previous presidency (Matza, Politico). Trump has also boasted about commuting sentences, but his record on criminal justice is sorely lacking in the areas of private prison use and the death penalty; the former president "sued California over its state ban on private prisons" and wants to "restart federal executions" (Politico). Biden clearly has a more promising recent record on criminal justice than former president Trump. Still, some of his reform plans—especially those related to the death penalty and solitary confinement—seem hollow promises without much weight behind them.

Many of the other candidates in the race seem to lack concrete policies related to criminal justice reform, and some even oppose criminal justice reform altogether. While Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the only Democratic candidate besides Biden with any significant base of support, pledges to "end the failed War on Drugs and grant amnesty to nonviolent drug offenders" and "shut the school-to-prison pipeline, and transition prisons away from a punishment paradigm to a rehabilitation paradigm," he has not provided concrete plans for how he will take these steps (Ballotpedia). On the other hand, Ron DeSantis, Trump's primary challenger, has vehemently opposed policies promoting rehabilitation for incarceration; for instance, DeSantis vetoed a bill that "would have made it possible for an adult to have their criminal history expunged — essentially erased from public records" (Lartey), reducing the possibility of a second chance for formerly incarcerated people. Even more dangerously, DeSantis claims "that if elected President, he would repeal the First Step Act," one of Trump's few criminal justice reform programs (Mansoor). A successful DeSantis campaign could be the undoing of years of criminal justice reform work, so reformers should closely monitor his status in the polls.

Electing a candidate who strongly supports broad criminal justice reform policies is essential for promoting fair treatment in the prison system. Remain updated on candidates' policies—read articles, watch the news, and conduct extensive research before handing in a ballot at the polls. By working together, young activists can ensure that our next president is not one with a blatant disregard for the rights of incarcerated people but understands the importance of ending unfair sentencing and mistreatment in the U.S. prison system.



Works Cited


“Latest Polls.” FiveThirtyEight,


Politico Staff. “Biden vs. Trump: Who’s the Actual Criminal Justice Reformer?” Politico,

positions/.


Sherman, Amy. “Attorney General Garland’s memos are a step toward eliminating mandatory

minimums.” PolitiFact,


Bates, Josiah. “Criminal-Justice Reform Was a Key Part of President Biden’s Campaign. Here’s

How He’s Done So Far.” Time, https://time.com/6155084/biden-criminal-justice-reform/.

Ortiz, Erik. “Biden pledged to end solitary confinement. Federal prisons are increasing its use.”

NBC News,


Matza, Max. “US to end crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.” BBC News,


“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. presidential campaign, 2024.” Ballotpedia,


Lartey, Jamiles. “Why DeSantis Wants to Kill Trump’s Prison Reform Law.” The Marshall

Project,


Mansoor, Sanya. “DeSantis Moves to Trump's Right on Criminal Justice.” Time,

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