Ahead of second round of 2020 debates, Biden unveils sweeping criminal justice reform plan

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled a wide-ranging plan to reduce the country’s prison population, reform the nation’s criminal justice system and eliminate racial and income disparities in sentencing.

The former vice president’s campaign also highlighted that the proposal, officially titled the "Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice," would prioritize reform of the juvenile justice system -- using $1 billion per year “to make sure we give more children a second chance to live up to their potential.”

The plan would reverse some of the stricter sentences for crack versus powder cocaine that were implemented by the 1994 crime bill, which then-Sen. Biden of Delaware helped craft.

That law has been criticized by Democrats who blame the measure for spiking incarcerations, particularly among minorities, due to mandatory life sentence policy for repeat offenders.

Senior Biden campaign officials told Fox News that the sweeping new plan would be paid for using costs saved from reducing mass incarcerations.

Biden is expected to spotlight his plan during a stop Tuesday in New Orelans, while addressing an NAACP presidential candidate’s forum Wednesday in Detroit, as well as the next day in Indianapolis when he speaks at the National Urban League’s annual conference.

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The release of the plan comes just eight days before Biden faces off against nine of his rivals – including Sen. Kamala Harris of California – on the second night of the second round of Democratic presidential primary debates.

Biden, the front runner right now in the race for his party’s 2020 nomination, has seen his once-formidable lead in national and early voting state polling deteriorate following his less-than-stellar performance late last month during the first round of Democratic presidential nomination debates.

A senior Biden campaign official emphasized that the criminal justice reform policy – as well as the former vice president health care proposal, which he unveiled last week – “is something we have really been talking about out there on the campaign trail."

"There are real differences in this race between Vice President Biden and a number of people on that stage. You can expect him to draw that contrast next Wednesday,” the official said.

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Criminal justice reform is a thorny issue for Biden, due to his role in the 1994 bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Biden has long highlighted his role in helping write the law, which at the time was the largest anti-crime bill in the nation’s history. The measure provided for thousand of new police officers, millions of dollars to fund prevention programs, and billions of dollars to build new prisons.

But the law’s been criticized in recent years by Democrats who blame the measure for spiking incarcerations.

Last month on the campaign trail, Biden emphasized that "only one provision in there that had to do with mandatory sentences that I opposed. And that was a thing called the 'three strikes and you're out,' which I thought was a mistake. But it had a lot of the good things in the bill."

But facing jabs from numerous rivals over the law for spiking incarceration rates among minorities, Biden has repeatedly defended other parts of the measure. He’s credited the law’s gun control provisions – including the assault weapons ban - which he said helped him “beat the NRA.”

Two of the 2020 Democratic White House hopefuls who've targeted Biden over the measure -- Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey -- will be standing next to Biden on the debate stage next week.

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His new plan would create a new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention. His campaign explained that “in order to receive this funding, states will have to eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, institute earned credit programs, and take other steps to reduce incarceration rates without impacting public safety.”

The plan also aims to eliminate racial and income-based disparities in the country’s criminal justice system and “eliminate overly harsh sentencing for non-violent crimes.”

Biden would do that by expanding and using the power of the Justice Department to address systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors’ offices, resuming a practice from the Obama administration that’s been reduced the past two and a half years under the administration of Republican President Donald Trump.

Biden’s plan also calls for investing in public defenders’ offices to ensure defendants’ access to quality counsel, eliminating mandatory minimums, ending the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity, decriminalizing cannabis use and throwing out prior cannabis use convictions, and ending all incarcerations solely for drug use.

The former vice president would also call for the elimination of the death penalty, stop jailing people for being too poor to pay fines and fees, and stop corporations from profiteering off of incarceration ending the federal government’s use of private prisons. That would build off a policy implemented during his eight years as Obama’s vice president, but rescinded by the Trump Administration.

And as part of his proposals to reform the juvenile justice system, Biden’s campaign said the former vice president “would incentivize states to stop incarcerating kids and Expand funding for after-school programs, community centers, and summer jobs to keep young people active, busy, learning, and having fun.”