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Joe Biden’s Changes to The American Prison System: What Will They Look Like?

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

🕑 3 min

By Sara Campeti

1. Introduction

One of Joe Biden’s goals is to change the American prison system and start tackling the issue of prison overpopulation in the US. He wishes to do so by pardoning those imprisoned for simple marijuana possession. The problem of mass incarceration is that it seems to stem from a deeper problem, which characterizes the American judiciary system: systemic racism.

2. But What is Systemic Racism?

Cambridge dictionary defines systemic racism as “policies and practices that […] result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair harmful treatment of other based on race.” The judiciary- and prison system in the US. has been accused of allowing systemic racism to thrive by many activist organizations like the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter Movement. A study called The Sentencing Project interpreted the data coming from the US Census and the US Bureau of Statistics. Their mathematical interpretation has shown that “Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans” or that “nationally, one in 81 black adults in the US is serving time in state prison.” The raw data these calculations were derived from can be found in the “Methodology” section of the cited paper.

The systemic aspect of the mass incarceration of black Americans stems from centuries of racism in the country. The latter has historically manifested itself through slavery, segregation, police brutality, gerrymandering and, as mentioned above, mass incarceration of people of color. The problem of mass incarceration in the US has made it the country with the highest global incarceration rate. Other statistics derived from table B02001 of the 2019 Community Survey by the US Census Bureau show that black Americans make up 13 percent of the population but 38 percent of the prison population. The same percentage is shared by white Americans in prison, but the fundamental difference is that white Americans make up 60 percent of the total American population, not 13.

One could argue that these statistics are explained by the idea that black Americans tend to commit more of certain crimes than other communities, as shown in the US official police-recorded figures. However, it is crucial to understand that that higher crime rates in black communities do not stem from race, but from poverty: centuries of systemic racism have made it extremely challenging for black communities to climb their way out of poverty, which consequently increases crime rates. Tackling systemic racism will also allow for black communities to build generational wealth like white Americans have been able to and therefore bring the crime rates down.

Because of the union of the different issues mentioned above, the US has 25 percent of the global prison population, meaning around 2 million people are imprisoned in the “Land of Freedom.”

3. What is Biden’s Plan for this Issue?

Biden wishes to pardon prisoners who have been charged with simple marijuana possession at federal level, although marijuana remains illegal and possession remains a federal crime. Biden has acknowledged that "while White and Black and Brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and Brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionate rates.” His goal to reduce the American prison population by pardoning people incarcerated for minor crimes like marijuana possession is a valid first step towards tackling the issue of mass incarceration.

4. What are the Limitations to his Plan?

Nonetheless, it is still important to mention the limitations of this measure. Biden wishes to pardon people incarcerated at federal level. As shown by the data mentioned above, though, most black people are incarcerated in state prisons: the people who this measure was intended for are therefore not eligible for it. Another limitation is that it does not include non-US citizens incarcerated in American prisons, meaning that undocumented immigrants are still not eligible for the pardon. The US Sentencing Commission has shown that 72 percent of the people incarcerated in federal prisons for marijuana possession were non-citizens, meaning that the majority of the people that could potentially be pardoned are, again, not eligible for it.

5. Conclusion

In short, Biden’s plan is a start to the process of reducing prison population in the US though it can still be considered raw and a basic first step. Besides, it should be followed by more systematic and federal approaches to the American judicial- and prison system in order to fully eradicate the problem.

Sources: Channel4, FBI, US Census Bureau, The Sentencing Project

Written by Sara Campeti

November 2022

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