Joe Biden Has Come A Long Way On Criminal Justice Reform. Progressives Want More The former vice president is calling for broad reforms to policing and criminal justice in the wake of George Floyd's killing. Progressives are cautiously optimistic, but want to see more.

Joe Biden Has Come A Long Way On Criminal Justice Reform. Progressives Want More

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Former Vice President Joe Biden has responded to national protests over police violence and racism with a long list of changes he wants to make. Many of the policies the presumptive Democratic nominee is promoting are big departures from the types of policing bills he wrote early in his career. Progressive criminal justice reform advocates are happy with Biden's initial response but want to see him go even further. NPR's Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: People who have long pushed for policing reform see this moment of international protest and attention as maybe the biggest opportunity ever for getting changes passed into law.

CHIRAAG BAINS: I think it's been a sea change. I mean, we're seeing movement on these issues of policing and criminal justice that we didn't see even after Ferguson.

DETROW: Chiraag Bains worked at the Department of Justice during the Obama administration, investigating local police departments. He's been watching Joe Biden's response and also working to influence it. Bains was tapped by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to co-chair a committee aimed at hammering out specific criminal justice policy proposals for Biden.

BAINS: To do these things, it's going to take bold leadership and major concrete changes. It's not enough to speak to people's pain and utter the right words. I think Vice President Biden has been doing that, and that has been well-received, especially when compared with what people are getting from the current president. But we need a specific agenda, and it needs to be bold.

DETROW: Biden has already called for several changes. He wants Congress to ban police chokeholds and stop providing military equipment to local police departments. Biden says he'd step up federal oversight and told CBS News that he'd also create a national police oversight commission.


JOE BIDEN: You have to start off by insisting that the police departments meet a national standard of what constitutes policing that is appropriate. And all police departments are going to have to adopt it. We'll put together a commission to do that.

DETROW: And while Biden has made it clear he's not on board with a progressive push to defund the police, he also said this to CBS.


BIDEN: I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.

DETROW: Biden is responding to a massive and sudden shift in public attention on policing and systemic racism. He had already called for a big federal grant program aimed at pushing states to take mandatory minimum sentences off their books. His campaign says he'd increase presidential clemency powers, too. Bains, who said he's speaking for himself, not the task force, thinks all those policies can go a bit further.

BAINS: I'd like to see him abolish mandatory minimums entirely, restore federal parole, ramp up the use of clemency and take that outside of the Justice Department so people get a fair and independent evaluation of their petitions. So there are a lot of kind of bigger changes that are appropriate that I think the vice president should consider.

DETROW: The policies Biden is already calling for still mark a major shift from the high-profile role he played a generation ago when Congress passed several bills increasing prison sentences for drug crimes. Now Biden wants to decriminalize marijuana and is pushing states to decrease, not increase, the number of people in jail. But some progressives are like Aimee Allison - still a bit wary.

AIMEE ALLISON: And really, this is an opportunity for him to come to account for his role in promoting the crime bill back in the '90s.

DETROW: Allison is particularly frustrated that Biden won't back police defunding. Stacey Walker, another Sanders appointee on the task force, also backs police defunding. He doesn't see Biden ever coming around to the idea.

STACEY WALKER: With all of that said, we all understand that Donald Trump poses an existential risk to our democracy, to the American project and to everything Democrats hold dear.

DETROW: And until the election, Walker says he and other progressives will push Biden as far as they can.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

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