WASHINGTON — Today, President Biden and Attorney General Garland announced a plan to combat gun and related violence.
Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, issued the following statement in response:
“The Joe Biden of today understands that he needs to be different from the Joe Biden of the 1994 crime bill. That’s because leaders of both political parties now recognize that a ‘lock-em-up approach’ doesn’t address systemic problems and only creates generations of harm. As leaders grapple with rising rates of homicides and gun violence, we must be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of America’s failed war on crime.
“The heartbreaking tragedy of gun violence in American cities demands an effective and equitable response. The evidence shows that the most effective response to violence is using a diversity of approaches for safety, including community-based services and alternatives to police where appropriate. We applaud President Biden for seeking to move in the direction of funding community programs and attempting to address the root causes of crime, including his proposals to invest in community-based violence intervention programs, increasing support for people leaving prisons and jails, and committing the federal government to hire more formerly incarcerated people.
“At the same time, we have concerns about elements of the plan that could very well lead to the further criminalization of communities of color, and that allow cities to continue with the status quo solutions of more police and more aggressive enforcement. History has demonstrated that the hiring of more police officers leads to more enforcement of low-level offenses in communities of color. Of the 10.3 million arrests made per year by police, only 5 percent of those are for serious violent crimes like rape, murder, robbery, and aggravated assault. The remaining 95 percent are a mixture of offenses that are not related to violence, but unnecessarily criminalize Black communities in particular. Moreover, history has also shown that when the government launches efforts that target drug and weapons traffickers, like the proposals made today, those policies are implemented in an overbroad manner that needlessly criminalizes low-income communities of color. Joint state-federal task forces, like those proposed by the president today, are notorious for taking charging decisions out of local courts and into federal court, where prosecutors can seek higher sentences, including mandatory minimums. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past that have relied on heavy-handed law enforcement and extreme sentencing.
“The Biden proposal seems to acknowledge that we cannot rely solely on arresting our way out of this problem. Solutions must be focused on investing in communities that have seen the brunt of gun violence and are in need of more services and community safety approaches that do not rely on police. President Biden is intimately familiar with the ramifications that an overreaction to crime ‘spikes,’ which centers increased funding to law enforcement organizations and over-policing, can have on Black and Brown communities. He has actively voiced regrets about being a proponent of ‘tough on crime’ legislation in the past, and one of the core principles of the administration’s Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice is ‘reducing federal spending on incarceration and reinvesting in the communities impacted by mass incarceration.’ Just yesterday, he took a step toward dismantling the effects of crime legislation he previously backed by endorsing a measure to end the disparities between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
“Moments like these have fueled our nation’s mass incarceration crisis. This time around, we should be guided by evidence of what works, and not let the politics of fear drive our nation’s criminal justice policies.”