Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wants to provide federal funding to states interested in establishing an automatic expungement process for individuals with cannabis-related convictions.
The former vice-president said such convictions harm an individual’s life prospects and they disproportionately fall on people of color.
“[G]etting caught for smoking marijuana when you’re young surely shouldn’t deny you, the rest your life, being able to have a good paying job or a career or a loan or an ability to rent an apartment,” Biden said during a live-streamed speech on racial equity and the economy.
“Right now, that criminal record is the weight that holds back too many people of color, and many whites as well,” he added.
Biden noted many states “recognize the significant costs to their economy when people with certain non-violent criminal records can’t fully contribute to their full talents and capacity.”
The trouble is the expungement process can be “complicated and costly,” so even if states want to seal or expunge a non-violent criminal record, “the record keeping-systems are so outdated, they don’t know how to do it.”
For Biden, this is where the federal government could step in to assist.
“Under my plan, if a state decides it wants to implement an automated system for the sealing and expunging of certain nonviolent criminal records, if a state chooses to do that, the federal government will help put together the process and allow them the money to be able to know how to organize to do that.”
“That’s what racial equity in our economy looks like,” he said.
While the former Delaware senator’s offer to help states unburden citizens with nonviolent drug offenses is welcome, it also begs the question of why he is not in favor of full marijuana legalization. Instead, Joe Biden supports cannabis decriminalization, medical marijuana legalization, and rescheduling to enable further research into the plant. Such incremental reforms are perhaps the most ambitious put forward by a major-party presidential nominee but many, including members of the Biden-Sanders joint criminal justice task force, still argue that decriminalization does not go far enough.
“Decriminalization typically means that you don’t have a criminal penalty, but you could still be issued a civil fine. And then there are other kinds of consequences that could follow from that,” said task force member and former federal prosecutor Chiraag Bains. “It’s still illegal conduct. If possession of marijuana is just decriminalized and that is the hook for extensive police involvement in people’s lives, and if you haven’t addressed the underlying systemic problems in policing and the justice system overall, then people could continue to be stopped and searched and frisked and so forth.”
Many expected the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force would recommend full legalization as the Democratic party’s official position but in the end the group endorsed the approach taken by Biden so far. Democratic National Committee delegates then voted down a proposed amendment to the party’s draft policy platform that would have included support for cannabis legalization.
Some advocates suspect this vote was the result of pressure from Biden’s campaign but whether or not that is true, it is indicative of the suspicion that lingers around the former vice president when it comes to drug policy. Biden’s previous positions on drug use as a criminal justice matter requiring harsh sentencing means there is little trust in him as the person to deliver the comprehensive reforms demanded by marijuana legalization advocates. During his time in the Senate, Biden spearheaded punitive anti-drug laws which led to record numbers of people, largely of color, ending up in prison and saddled with the criminal records he now wishes to expunge.
His views on the matter have changed considerably since the 1990s, but he is still out of step with the majority of voters; numerous polls over recent years have shown consistent support for marijuana legalization among both Republicans and Democrats. This support was reflected among the unsuccessful candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination who all favored legalizing cannabis, with Biden left as the one outlying prohibitionist voice.
Biden’s speech on racial equity in the economy strikes positive notes but the details reveal a belief that progress on this front can largely be made simply by “helping states modernize their criminal justice data infrastructure.”
“This data infrastructure will facilitate sealing of records in a manner that is precise, complete and efficient—so those records are not used to deny people jobs, housing, voting rights, school loans and other opportunities to rebuild their lives,” the plan reads. “The grants Biden is proposing will support state efforts to research, plan for, and ultimately implement the criminal record data infrastructure improvements that will make automated record relief possible. Beyond that, the infrastructure improvements will yield a general improvement in the operation and efficiency of state records.”
With the country reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests following the police murder of George Floyd, it should be clear that it’s going to take a lot more than technocratic improvements to deliver racial equity in the economy. Biden needs to realize this if he’s serious about bringing the country together.