Innovate Criminal Justice Reform

Substantial change is long overdue in the United States, but the new administration can take these three steps to remedy past injustices.

Sukyi McMahon
January 22, 2021

President Biden's administration has a long to-do list for its first 100 days. Columbia News asked faculty members from across the University to identify the most pressing issues facing the country and offer possible solutions. 

In the first 100 days of his administration, President Biden has a chance to rewrite his own legislative history on criminal justice by rebuilding a new type of justice in America. Biden will inherit a pandemic that is still spreading through America’s prisons and jails at alarming rates, and an economic crisis that is disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx communities—the same communities our criminal justice system imprisons. By getting to the root of America’s criminal justice problem—racism and poverty—President Biden can address these twin crises.

The Square One Project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab suggests three recommendations the Biden Administration should tackle during its first 100 days.

1. Confront racism

Biden could start by creating a permanent role in the Cabinet, the Secretary of Racial Justice. This position would be responsible for coordinating actions across the administration to correct the impact of racial disparities.

The secretary would review federal policy across the board to better understand ways it has increased racial disparities and propose innovative solutions to reverse them. There’s plenty of precedent for this idea: San Francisco, Charlottesville, and Pittsburgh all have an Office of Racial Justice and are using these offices to propose bold policy solutions that tackle the legacy of systemic racism in America and promote equity, mobility, and healing.

2. Address Poverty

A federal jobs guarantee program that includes formerly incarcerated individuals would certainly mark a step forward in dramatically improving opportunities for millions of Americans. But we know that jobs alone cannot fix America’s poverty crisis, especially as Americans have a hard time accessing affordable and sustainable housing. Putting forward a plan that addresses housing insecurity and poverty simultaneously would ensure that as we shrink our prison population, formerly incarcerated Americans have reliable homes and jobs to go back to after release.

3. Reimagine the Carceral System and Condemn Its Violent History

Biden must also reimagine public safety. Time and time again, we have seen firsthand the flaws within law enforcement agencies across the country. The Biden administration shouldn’t just define safety as the absence of crime, but also as the presence of opportunity. For communities to thrive, they need access to good schools, available and affordable healthy foods, plenty of parks, quality health care, along with strong democratic engagement, and more. Ideas to change the existing system, like mental health first responders and community interventionists, are a few of many ways to change the face of public safety in America.

There isn’t a silver bullet for how Biden should tackle our failed criminal justice system, but doing more of the same is not the way to go. The status quo is what got us here in the first place. It’s time to reimagine, rebuild, and bring in new perspectives and voices within the administration that can finally build a new type of justice in America.

Sukyi McMahon: A headshot of a woman with shoulder length curly dark hair who is wearing a green necklace and a light colored shirt

Sukyi McMahon is the manager for the Roundtable on the Future of Justice Policy, Square One Project at Columbia University's Justice Lab where she draws together academics, advocates, community leaders, and practitioners in three-day gatherings to drive understanding and innovation in criminal justice reform. 

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.