A Practical Wish List for Joe Biden
In his victory speech, Joe Biden promised to be “a healer, a uniter, a tested and steady hand.” If the new president wants to make good on his word, Reason staffers have some ideas for a few items to add to his policy agenda. These are suggestions that Biden might plausibly heed. We’re still gunning for the legalization of heroin, but we’d settle for descheduling marijuana. We’d love to see an end to all foreign adventurism, but just getting out of Afghanistan would be a good start. A robust private market in health insurance would be ideal, but the new administration could at least allow a larger variety of plans. No one expects Biden to be a libertarian president, but here are a few things he could do to make the nation a little bit more hospitable to free minds and free markets.
Reform the Clemency Process
If the Biden administration wants to make substantive gains in criminal justice reform without having to deal with Congress, it should turn to one of the least limited tools of the presidency: the pardon power.
The last two presidents have handled the pardon power differently. Barack Obama launched an unprecedented large-scale clemency initiative aimed at nonviolent drug offenders. As a result, 1,715 federal inmates had their sentences commuted or reduced. But the process was dogged by foot-dragging and resistance from the Justice Department, and thousands of inmates were left behind.
Pardon and clemency petitions are typically routed through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. This office solicits feedback on petitions from the very federal prosecutors who secured those sentences, which creates a conflict of interest. “This is something we realized was not working under Obama,” says Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer at the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice advocacy organization. “That bottlenecked the process. It had to go through so many hands. There were deserving people who didn’t get it because of the pardon office being in the Justice Department.”
That included Alice Johnson, a grandmother serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime. President Donald Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence after a personal appeal from megacelebrity Kim Kardashian West.
The Trump administration sidelined the Office of the Pardon Attorney, instead relying on a small group of informal advisers who vetted and brought lists of potential recipients to the White House. These included federal inmates who’d been passed over by the Obama administration, such as Crystal Munoz, who was serving 20 years in federal prison for a marijuana offense.
While this allowed commutations and pardons that otherwise would have been torpedoed by the Justice Department, the downside was that the number of beneficiaries slowed to a trickle. By the end of Trump’s term, more than 13,000 clemency applications were pending. He was on track to issue the fewest pardons and commutations of any president since William McKinley, until a spree in December bumped him up to 90 total, ahead of George H.W. Bush’s 77. The process also meant that to secure a commutation, you needed to have well-connected advocates and to capture the president’s fleeting attention. (Imagine how this could be abused if, hypothetically, a president was vain and easily impressed by celebrity status.)
Ideally there could be a smoothly operating pardon office, independent of the Justice Department, that handled clemency petitions at volume, with an eye toward the sort of excessive drug sentences that both Obama and Trump decried but never had the stomach to fully address. This wouldn’t require an act of Congress—just the will of a president able to admit the size and scope of the problem.
C.J. CIARAMELLA is a reporter at Reason.
Get Out of Afghanistan
In both 2011 and 2013, the Obama administration announced its intention to get all our conventional forces out of Afghanistan, where they did little but prop up corruption, provide targets for insurgents, and waste taxpayers’ money. As vice president, Biden tweeted that we would be out of Afghanistan in 2014. He failed to come through then, but he can make up for it now.
Washington currently finds itself, by realpolitik necessity, negotiating with the same force—the Taliban—that it sent troops to Afghanistan to overthrow. We stayed long enough, caused enough death and chaos, and funded enough bad governance for the wheels of history to transform a war that looked like a U.S. victory into an occupation that looks sadly pointless. The best thing we can take away from the experience is the wisdom not to pretend we can pacify or transform a troubled nation half a world away and the prudence not to stay in a war long after its futility has become clear.
Waiting until the Taliban stop misbehaving, or the contending sides in their internal conflicts have settled their differences, guarantees Afghanistan will be a forever war—one that Biden declared last year that “it is past time to end.” Ending it requires presidential resolve, not leaving foreign policy decisions in the hands of Afghanistan’s feuding factions or waiting for fantastical “security condit
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