How Biden Can Tackle Mass Incarceration

As a candidate, Joe Biden said he would substantially reduce the federal prison population as president. Last week he commuted the sentences of 11 people who he said were serving unjustifiably harsh prison terms for drug offenses and also pardoned people convicted of certain marijuana charges. Still, the number of people in federal prison has grown during the Biden administration.

Despite historical bipartisan support for sentencing reform, Mr. Biden has failed to fully embrace the momentum of his two immediate predecessors, who made substantial efforts to tackle mass incarceration. Some have argued that his relative inaction on the issue may hurt him among key voting groups.

But it is not too late.

Ten years ago, Barack Obama began an ambitious program to reform the country’s criminal justice system and take on mass incarceration, offering clemency to people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes who had demonstrated rehabilitation. Over 1,500 people were freed — many of whom would have died in prison otherwise.

And five years ago, Donald Trump took up that mantle and accelerated reform of federal sentencing laws by championing the First Step Act, which, as of January 2023, has resulted in the early release of nearly 30,000 people in prison, including many sentenced under what many lawmakers came to consider especially harsh laws.

The opportunity is ripe for Mr. Biden to act as well. And he can do so without negotiating with a fractious Congress and without following Mr. Obama’s politically fraught path of offering clemency, which invites the same arbitrariness and inequities that reformers are trying to correct.

Instead, Mr. Biden can chart his own course by taking advantage of a little-used law that allows prison officials to recommend to federal judges that they re-evaluate sentences of people for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” This can include people who are facing long sentences and have already served many years behind bars, have shown their commitment to rehabilitation and are prepared for release.

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