Our nation spent the better part of this summer in upheaval. Protests became a daily part of life as people took to the streets in response to police killings of unarmed Black people. As a new president and vice president, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, enter office, many are hoping to see the Biden-Harris team take action to address these historic injustices and protect innocent lives. However, Biden and Harris’ political pasts and Biden’s new choices for top governmental positions do not bode well for those on the side of life and justice.
A point of concern brought up in early presidential debates has been Biden’s political past regarding criminal justice. Biden’s infamous 1994 crime bill resulted in higher mass incarceration, juvenile incarceration, and prison expansion, all issues disproportionately impacting Black people and other people of color. It also created sixty new death penalty offenses for crimes related to terrorism, murder of law enforcement officers, and civil rights murders, and it offered grants for building and expanding prisons in states that enforced mandatory sentencing for 85% of an offender’s sentence.
Kamala Harris has quite the history herself. Harris began her career working in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office before becoming the District Attorney for San Francisco. Harris then became the first Black woman to be elected Attorney General of California, a position she held until she took her seat in the Senate.
As District Attorney, she promised to never utilize the death penalty, and she held true to that promise. However, she also prosecuted parents of truant students with hefty fines and jail time, defended mandatory minimums, and continued to pursue harsh sentencing for minor drug offenses.
As Biden and Harris take office, Biden’s choices for the Department of Justice (DOJ) will hold significant weight on the potential for real systemic impact.
Merrick Garland has been selected as Attorney General, the highest role in the DOJ. Garland is seen as an aggressively bland centrist figure, described by his political allies as a “Boy Scout.” But in a political climate where both parties hold numerous anti-life policies, being a “Boy Scout” is not necessarily a good thing. Garland may not do anything actively awful during his term, but he likely will not do much good, either. There’s a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu I often think of when someone is praised for “neutrality” or balance. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” It is not admirable to be neutral when human beings lose their lives every day to violent systems and practices.
In the position below Garland, Lisa Monaco has been appointed as Deputy Attorney General of the Department of Justice. Monaco is a former homeland security adviser. During the Obama administration, Monaco ran the “day-to-day” of Guantanamo Bay. For those unfamiliar, Guantanamo Bay is famous for its utilization of horrific methods of torture that were used to develop the CIA’s torture program.
Vanita Gupta has been nominated as associate attorney general. Gupta led the civil rights division at the DOJ under President Obama. Gupta began her career at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she successfully campaigned to overturn thirty-eight wrongful drug convictions in Texas. In her next position at the American Civil Liberties Union, she led the Smart Justice Campaign, a campaign aimed at ending mass incarceration. Throughout her career, she has kept civil rights at the heart of her work, and she seems a promising pick for this position.
Kristen Clarke has been chosen as head of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice. Clarke has been decried by right-wing media outlets for a letter written to the Harvard Crimson in 1992. In this letter, Clarke asserted that “Melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities — something which cannot be measured based on Eurocentric standards.” Such race-based pseudoscience as this has historically served as the basis for eugenics and racial discrimination and is thoroughly bunk, as well as deeply harmful.
Though they are truly a mixed bag, all of these DOJ appointees served under Obama’s presidency, something that does not bode well for decreased militarization and harsh penal systems. While Obama’s administration made some decent strides regarding prisons, with the incarceration rate falling by 5%, the administration also denied investigations into and punishment for government-sanctioned torture, and they continued to bomb middle eastern countries, including countless hospitals, schools, and innocent human beings of all ages.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden made grand promises for the criminal justice system, claiming he will end private prisons, cash bail, mandatory minimums, and the death penalty. However, with the worrisome political histories of both President and Vice President and these dubious DOJ picks, whether or not he will hold true to these promises remains to be seen.