If Biden’s Big Idea for Criminal Justice is to Take Us Back to the Obama Years, We’re All In Trouble.

Eight of the deadliest years for police violence in American history were the eight years that President Obama was in office. Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and so many others were killed by police or died in their custody during his administration. In some ways, the longer he was in office, the worse the problem got.

While Donald Trump advocated for police, and even defended police brutality, the problems of policing pretty much stayed the same during his four years in office as they were in the prior eight years of the Obama administration. They didn’t drastically spike or decline - they pretty much stayed consistent.

What that means, in essence, is that both Trump and Obama did very little of substance to address, confront and/or change the root causes of police violence. That’s hard to accept because in the worst cases of police violence and racial injustice, Obama would routinely offer sincere condolences and empathy while Trump would either say nothing at all or defend the police altogether.

But neither of them did the hard, transformative work to actually address the crises of police violence and mass incarceration.

Which lands me at the root of what I want to say today - if Joe Biden’s big idea for confronting police brutality and mass incarceration is to take us back to the policies and positions of the Obama administration - then we’re all in trouble. Those policies and positions were nowhere near substantive enough to confront the true magnitude of the problems we’re facing.

What happened today is case in point.

Joe Biden signed several executive orders. One was widely hailed as “the end of private prisons.” I saw major media organizations and leading political leaders literally tweet that Biden just issued an executive order “ending private prisons.”

Except no such thing happened.

The overwhelming majority of private prisons are state-based. 100% of those private prisons will continue. But not only will 100% of city, county, and state based private prisons continue to operate, the majority of federal private prisons and detention centers, which are immigration detention centers, will continue as well.

Biden’s executive order didn’t cover any of those. About 8% of all incarcerated people are housed in private prisons. 92% of all incarcerated people are in public facilities. Worse, Biden’s executive order appears to impact only a microscopic amount of the already tiny percentage of people held in private prisons. One expert today told me that Biden’s announcement would impact such a tiny percentage of people that he didn’t actually have a number for it - because it’s less than half of a percent.

This is performative change. It’s more than nothing, but at the same time somewhere in the ballpark of a half step above nothing. To actually confront this problem, it’s going to take a lot of more than this.