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Activists wanted Biden to revamp the justice system. Many say they're still waiting

In this July 6, 2020, file photo a sign for the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons is displayed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Mark Lennihan
In this July 6, 2020, file photo a sign for the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons is displayed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

People working to overhaul the criminal justice system say they're frustrated with the Biden administration after they've waited nearly a year for the White House to take major steps on clemency and sentencing reform.

"I think we're at a point where we're saying mere lip service isn't enough," said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "We want to see some concrete action."

For them, concrete action could include granting clemency to the few thousand people who were released to home confinement by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. President Biden could ensure those people remain free with the stroke of a pen. But he hasn't done that, despite months of pressure.

"To me, it's a bellwether," said Kevin Ring, the leader of FAMM, which advocates to end the use of mandatory minimum prison sentences. "Because if the administration won't address this, and address it immediately, I don't know what hope we can have that other things are going to get done."

Ring said that every day he hears from people afraid of being sent back to federal prison when the pandemic emergency ends.

"For somebody who isn't sure whether they can get a lease, start a family, start a relationship, begin college courses, get on with their life, it's incredibly callous to say, 'Oh, we haven't made a decision yet and we don't have to because there's a pandemic still going on,'" Ring added.

Last week, Ring, Cook and others met with the Biden White House to turn up the heat. So far, the president hasn't granted clemency to anyone.

Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, told NPR in a written statement that the president has taken steps to reform the system "since his first day in office."

"This includes restoring the Department of Justice's Office for Access to Justice, implementing new restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement, ending contracts with private detention facilities, and expanding access to re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals," Gwin said.

The number of federal inmates has grown under Biden

The advocates say they're happy to give credit where it's due. They praised the Justice Department for rescinding a Trump-era memo that directed prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could for any crime. And they're happy the DOJ has launched four big civil rights investigations of police departments.

But they've also taken note of this fact: The federal prison population has increased by some 5,000 people during Biden's tenure, according to Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher at the Sentencing Project.

The prison population began dropping under Barack Obama and the fall continued under Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump. That decline is now over, Ghandnoosh said. Some of the recent increase is because courts and prisons slowed down at the start of the pandemic, only to restart this year.

While homicides and shootings have increased in many parts of the country, the vast majority of those crimes are handled by state and local authorities, not the federal government. Most people in federal prison are there for breaking drug or immigration laws, Ghandnoosh said.

Ghandnoosh had expected to see more than "small tinkering" by the new team in Washington.

"We would expect to hear from the attorney general and the president very vocal and unequivocal support for federal sentencing reform that's being considered right now and that could help to give those initiatives an important boost," she added.

Another criticism is about personnel.

The White House hasn't taken any action to fill vacancies on the Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines for many crimes.

"In the past, some of the best reforms [that] have been achieved in the last 10 years have been at the Sentencing Commission and they haven't even nominated people to fill this vacant body," said Ring of FAMM.

Meanwhile, key allies of the White House, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are going public with their demand that the Justice Department fire the head of the federal prison system. They say the Federal Bureau of Prisons mismanaged the pandemic and that there are several other serious problems in the system.

Midterm elections could create a time crunch

Democrats control both chambers of Congress with small majorities. But the administration hasn't used the bully pulpit to promote the EQUAL Act, a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine. Those laws have punished Black people more harshly than white people for decades for essentially the same crime.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly advanced the parity legislation in September, but it's waiting for a vote in the full Senate.

Gwin, the White House spokesman, said that "the administration will continue pushing Congress to pass badly needed legislation, while at the same time moving forward on reforms through executive action."

Cook, of the Leadership Conference, pointed out that there may not be much time to act. She said if history is a guide, the administration's options could be more limited if Congress changes hands after next year's midterm elections.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.