On January 26th, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order to eliminate the use of privately operated criminal detention centers. More specifically, the executive order keeps the Department of Justice from renewing contracts with privately owned prisons. However, this executive order does little to advance criminal justice reform or dismantle the mass incarceration system Biden himself helped create.
For a span of 50 years, from 1925 to 1975, the U.S. state and federal prison population consistently remained below 250,000 people. In the next 32 years, from 1976 to 2008, the federal and state incarceration population would rise to more than 1.6 million people. This increase can be traced to policies that targeted poor urban communities – from Nixon’s war on drugs, to Reagan’s anti-drug abuse act, to Clinton’s three strikes rule. Throughout the Reagan and Clinton Administrations, then Senator Biden, spearheaded and co-signed legislation which dispensed mandatory minimums, increased funding for prisons, and created a sentence disparity between powder cocaine and the cheaper counterpart, crack cocaine. Being in possession of 5 grams of crack came with a minimum sentence of five years without parole, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to guarantee the same punishment. The harsher sentencing for a cheaper drug resulted in higher prison rates in low-income communities.
Biden’s current criminal justice policy appears to be aimed at undoing legislation he initiated more than 35 years ago. His participation in poor policy making and government spending (Biden helped write legislation to increase funding for prisons in the ‘90s) contributed to the criminalization of poverty and petty drug usage which unequally affected communities of color. Instead of creating policy initiatives to counteract the root causes of drug sales and usage, addiction was criminalized, and communities of color were torn apart which has had a lasting effect on targeted communities. Yet, the opioid crisis, which predominately affects white communities, was declared a national public health emergency by the Trump administration and garnered federal funding to address addiction prevention and recovery. Criminalizing addiction amongst one group while rehabilitating the other, has led to increased opportunities for white folks and a disparity in incarceration for people of color. Of U.S. residents born in 2001, 1 in 17 white men are likely to be imprisoned while the likelihood for black men is 1 in 3. With more than 2.3 million people in prisons and jails today, it is no surprise that the world’s leader in incarceration is the United States. Biden’s Executive Order to sever federal ties to private prisons is a first step toward undoing his torrid legacy —or so it seems.
Ending contracts with for-profit institutions will not cure mass incarceration. While private prisons have found ways to profit from mass incarceration, the vast majority of people incarcerated in the U.S. are detained in publicly owned prisons. Fewer than 10% of prisons are privately owned. There is a preconceived notion that private prisons are the root of corruption in the incarceration system because their goal is to make money; however, private prisons operate in conjunction to the massive publicly owned system. Taxpayers spend $80 billion dollars a year on prisons. Biden’s executive order terminates the relationship between the Department of Justice and private prisons but does not extend to contracts between homeland security and private prisons. This means the order does not apply to the immigration detention centers run by private, for-profit prisons where more than 80% of detained immigrants are currently being held. This executive order only effects the 12 private prisons in contract with the DOJ, which detains approximately– 14,000 of more than 2 million people. While cutting the DOJ’s ties with private prisons is a step in the right direction, the President is going to need to do a lot more if criminal justice reformers are to believe he is truly committed to undoing his wrongs.
Marina “Livas” Salazar is a Major in Women and Gender Studies here at Hunter, with a minor in Public Policy. She is a scholar of Fordham’s inaugural IDEAL pipeline program, which provides underrepresented students internship experience and guidance through the law school application process. Marina is a proud product of the CUNY school system receiving her Associates at Borough of Manhattan Community College and soon her BA from Hunter. As a late in life student, she is a firm believer in second chances. Her goal is to attend law school and spend the rest of her life changing lives, changing policy, and providing second chances.