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Reflecting on Vice President Biden's Call for Economic Justice and Criminal Justice Reform

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by Madinah Wilson-Anton, Assistant Policy Analyst, Biden Institute

 

​from l-r: Martin Luther King, Jr III, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Vice President Joe Biden

On Monday, January 21, 2019, Vice President Biden, the Chair of the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware, delivered remarks and was honored with the Lifetime of Excellence in Public Service Award at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. His remarks were focused on the importance of protecting civil rights, be it through protesting racism perpetuated by the alt-right or protecting voting rights from voter suppression. Read Vice President Biden's full remarks here.

The Vice President emphasized the importance of economic justice as a civil right, as he reminded those in attendance that Dr. King was in Memphis the day he was assassinated because he was supporting a workers' strike. Underscoring the importance of all workers being treated with dignity, Vice President Biden outlined several current barriers to the economic wellbeing of Americans, such as non-compete agreements, rising health care costs, and low-paying jobs, that often leave families stressed and living from paycheck-to-paycheck. He mentioned the importance of recognizing how systematic racism has contributed to economic disparities for black Americans, specifically, including the lack of investment in predominately black schools, undervaluing of black-owned homes, and higher car insurance rates.

Vice President Biden stressed the importance of recognizing systemic and institutional racism that persists in all parts of American life today, beyond just the economic. When it comes to tackling the problem of mass incarceration, for example, Vice President Biden proposed multiple policy solutions, including: 1) A federal law removing the current disparities in sentencing that exist between crack and powder cocaine, 2) ending the practice of mandatory minimum sentencing, and 3) ending the cash bail system, which he called the "legacy of debtors' prisons." Because most incarcerated people in the United States are not in federal prisons, but state prisons, he discussed the importance of also pushing for state-level reforms.

During his remarks, Vice President Biden mentioned that in Delaware recent steps have been taken to reform the state's system of cash bail. Cash bail (also called bail bond) is the practice of releasing suspects from custody before their hearings when some sort of payment or pledge of payment is made. The idea being if someone pays the money they are more likely to appear in court later, and not attempt to flee the area. In other situations when suspects are deemed too likely to flee, or too dangerous to be released, no bail amount is set pre-trial. While bail policies vary in different states, cash bail disproportionately affects those who have less money. In Delaware in October 2017, "712 people were being held in prison solely because they could not pay bail. About 20 percent of them had a bail set at $5,000 or less."1 This means that people who are suspected of crimes and lack access to quick cash are often imprisoned pre-trial for long periods of time— causing them to lose income, jobs, and sometimes even custody of their children.

But advocates and government officials in Delaware, including the Delaware Center for Justice (led by the Vice President's daughter, Ashley Biden), are working on eliminating cash bail and replacing it with a risk-based bail system instead— removing money from the equation entirely. The first step in this effort was the successful passage of House Bill 204. Signed into law in January of 2018, House Bill 204 requires courts "to consider risk by using empirically-based tools to determine whether a defendant is likely to stay out of trouble and come to court, and use that information to make individualized 'assignments' of conditions of release."2 It also encourages the use of other pre-trial release conditions, as alternatives to cash bail: such as "ankle monitors, mandatory check-ins with court officers and restrictions on travel, alcohol consumption and contact with victims."3 When asked about the impact the bill would have, Ashley Biden said4 the bill "standardizes the process which judges use, it gives judges more data and more information in determining whether someone should be released into the community…currently the system criminalizes poverty."

Other states are working to reform their cash bail systems too. New Jersey5 has nearly eliminated cash bail, and California made history6 as the first state to eliminate cash bail completely; the measure is now on hold until a statewide referendum takes place in November 2020. As advocates continue to lead the charge for bail reform and ending mass incarceration, other states are working to implement new policies to keep communities safe without criminalizing poverty, because people should be held in prison because they're dangerous—not because they're poor.

Vice President Biden's remarks at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day breakfast remind us that the fight for civil rights is not yet won. He called for a renewed effort to protect civil rights, and expressed his optimism that younger generations, including millennials, will lead that charge. He quoted Reverend Barber in closing and said, "it isn't enough just to remember Dr. King. 'We have to reach down in the blood and pick up the baton and carry [it] the rest of the way.' The next generation is coming to carry it forward…I have never been more optimistic than I am today— I still believe the dream is within our reach. As [Dr. King] said, 'let us move on in these powerful days… to make America what it ought to be.' Because, in fact, it can be."

_________________________________________________

1. Scott Goss, “Delaware Senate sends bail reform bill to Gov. Carney,” The News Journal, January 16, 2018, https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/16/delaware-senate-sends-bail-reform-bill-gov-carney/1037251001/

2. H.B. 204 An Act to Amend Title 11 of the Delaware Code Relating to Release of Persons Accused of Crimes, http://legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail?legislationId=25863

3. H.B. 204 An Act to Amend Title 11 of the Delaware Code Relating to Release of Persons Accused of Crimes, http://legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail?legislationId=25863

4. Scott Goss, video interview, “Delaware Senate sends bail reform bill to Gov. Carney,” The News Journal, January 16, 2018, https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/politics/2018/01/16/delaware-senate-sends-bail-reform-bill-gov-carney/1037251001/

5. Lisa Foderaro, “New Jersey Alters Its Bail System and Upends Legal Landscape,” The New York Times, February 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/06/nyregion/new-jersey-bail-system.html

6. Alejandro Lazo and Dan Frosch, “California eliminates cash bail for suspects awaiting trial,” Market Watch, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/california-eliminates-cash-bail-for-suspects-awaiting-trial-2018-08-28

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