Every so often, the executive branch offers insight into the position on important political issues. Recently, President Biden issued an executive order (Exec. Order 14074 of May 25, 2022) that pertains to Policing and Criminal Justice Practices. Several conclusions can be drawn from his statements, which I would like to highlight here.
Executive Orders often bring to light areas of concern in the way the government is functioning. While the President can not create laws that address current pollical issues (this right is reserved for Congress), he can address those Directors of various Federal agencies and advise on policy within how those agencies function under his command. The primary purpose for executive orders is generally to raise a concern and call for action – usually in the form of reports from leaders in those various agencies. Politically, they can send a message to the public that concern in specific areas are being addressed and thought about.
In this case, many statements were made regarding to criminal justice practices that should promote positive change with respect to the system itself. Even initially, the very first statement highlights an important idea: “Our criminal justice system must respect the dignity and rights of all persons and adhere to our fundamental obligation to ensure fair and impartial justice for all.” He goes on to express that this is imperative, while also addressing issues where bonds of trust which have been “frayed or broken”. While many aspects of the order was addressed at policing, the view generally involves focus on the people the system is meant to protect, every US citizen. He states, “…we must also reform our broader criminal justice system so that it protects and serves all people equally.”
There are several conclusions which can be drawn from his initial statements, however one that is paramount is that the leader of the free world is openly admitting that the criminal justice system, as well as how the United States polices it’s population, is broken and needs to be repaired. It’s also important to point out that the system must also respect the dignity and rights of all. This is important, because it implies that this is not currently happening, otherwise it would not have been addressed as it has been in such a political way.
As indicated in the executive order, the President admits that violent crime is rising (as a side note, this also shows that the increase in Federal criminal laws and harsher sentencing has not been reducing crime rates). He also states that community-oriented policing should be encouraged, I believe specifically because of his prior statement about strengthening community trust and how it is more critical now than ever.
Paramount Issues Addressed
One of the most important areas which applies to our overall mission at A Voice From Prison follows in his statement which reads, “We must provide people who are incarcerated with meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and the tools and support they need to transition successfully back to society.” He wishes to “ensure that conditions of confinement are safe and humane, and that those who are incarcerated are not subjected to unnecessary or excessive uses of force, are free from prolonged segregation, and have access to quality health care, including substance use disorder care and mental health care.”
As individuals within the system who have faced previous incarceration, Biden addresses concerns specifically by stating, “Lowering barriers to reentry is essential to reducing recidivism and reducing crime.” He is also clearly aware of the disadvantage those facing incarceration have by his statement, “Individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system face many barriers in transitioning back into society…”
There is a substantial problem with segregating people from society and then expecting them to reintegrate successful with the community after being subject to a unique experience such as prison, following extensive stigma’s placed upon them by the community. The problem is clear – while rehabilitation is an objective, the disadvantages faced by those targeted by the system creates a revolving door situation. We must work with society, community, and the leaders of government to promote change that allows offenders the opportunity to actually be successful in being a citizen again following the punishment issued by the courts in interpretation the laws of our Nation. Right not, this clearly is not happening.
Equally important has been his focus upon the First Step Act of 2018 (Public Law 115-391). It specifically “sought to relieve people from unfair and unduly harsh sentences”. Implementation of this is still on-going and has failed to meet several deadlines defined under law set by Congress. The BOP is still attempting to even perform calculation of credits earned, keeping many of those incarcerated past their dates to return to the community illegally.
Details of The Executive Order
Many sections within his order is addressed at the way policing is currently performed in America. The administration has requested reports from several Federal agencies to address systemic issues that currently plague the system. I’ll attempt to highlight the important sections that pertain to the issues which we believe are most paramount within the criminal justice system.
One of the big things which the order wishes to address are No-Knock Entries (Sec. 10). Unfortunately, these are all too common. Many Federal agencies use these routinely against first time offender simply because they believe a crime has been committed and the suspect own legal firearms. (remember innocence until proven guilty?) Many times, Federal law enforcement officers choose to exercise this for the protection of all, however, as I can personally testify to, being woken up in the middle of the night, in your own home in the middle of the night, you are disoriented and too often believe a active threat is present rather than police entering your home. As someone who has never been convicted of a crime and believed to be a law abiding citizen where the crime suspected was computer related, I find it of great concern that this practice is routine upon every day normal citizen where the suspect is non-violent and has never been convicted of a crime. The president has currently asked for several records and reports related to these raids.
Another big concern is the transfer of military equipment to civilian law enforcement (Sec. 12). In what case would a police department ever need a tank or armored vehicle fit for battle? Having a background familiar with law enforcement agencies, I can reasonably say that MOST police department currently have at least one armored vehicle that was designed for war. There are no reasons that would require that out of only very specific situations and militarizing America’s police forces seems like a very bad road to head down in my opinion. The President believes so to and has restricted transfers of grenade launchers, flash-bangs, silencers, and ammunition .05 or greater caliber. He has also restricted the transfer of military armed drones that do not have a commercial flight application. We should not be policing our citizens where a police officer can launch live weapons on a citizen from a military flight application. If our streets are truly a warzone, our issues are beyond just community based policing.
Biden has also addressed Body-Worn Cameras (Sec. 13), seeing that this will promote trust and accountability. While the order does address Federal law enforcement agencies, it will be interesting to see how and if this will be implemented. I believe personally that many Federal law enforcement agencies will resist this change, as currently they are allowed a great deal of leeway in their official role. Abuse is present and more common than you think – if this measure is successful in creating accountability, we will see a dramatic shift in how prisoners and those suspected of crimes are treated.
Another big concern for the administration are Safe Conditions in Prisons and Jails (Sec. 16). Too many individuals, a lot of them non-violent, have died in prison under harsh conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was all preventable and led to unnecessary lives being lost. While the general population were able to protect themselves and their families, those within our prisons and jails were under the management of prison guards and administrators, who made decisions on their behalf. The President has asked the DOJ to ensure that laws are being implemented properly (which if brought up brings to light an entire new collection of concerns) that allow those who can or should be released are. Most of these offenders are non-violent and have an opportunity to contribute to society positively.
The law section I will discuss is the First Step Implementation (Sec. 17) – as this has been a major failure in many forms and fashions since it has been passed back 3 years ago. The BOP has failed to implement (or implement properly) the First Step Act in many ways. The administration is currently concerns about this and has asked the Attorney General to work with ensuring the act is fully implemented as intended by Congress. He specifically asks to “…ensure dedicated programming staff for all prisoners…” which has still not happened. Many parts of the First Step Act has not yet been implemented properly and many qualify for early release are still locked behind bars.
All in all, an Executive Order can be a political show of force which actively presents societal issues that current need to be addressed. This is a step in the right direction, showing the the leader of the executive branch is seriously concerned with the state of the United States criminal justice system. While reports are just that, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows most records and reports to be publicly access by the general public. I personally hope that this truly does bring accountability and trust back to the criminal justice system. United States is a leader in the world and should set an ethical standard for the rest of the world to follow. I believe we are finally beginning to see the initial footsteps towards positive change within the hard to change cogs of government. If issues stay present on the minds of Americans, then we will not have lost the momention to really drive some positive and much needed change!