Editor’s Note: Keisha Lance Bottoms is the mayor of Atlanta. Prior to becoming mayor, she was a member of the Atlanta City Council. She has endorsed Joe Biden for president in 2020. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Criminal justice reform is deeply personal to me. When I was eight years old, I came home from school one afternoon to see my dad being led away in handcuffs as police officers raided our home.
At the time, I was not able to fully articulate the pain I felt nor understand the gravity of the situation. But the trauma of that day forever altered the trajectory of my family. It also informs one part of why I have endorsed Joe Biden for president of the United States: I support his plan to strengthen our nation’s commitment to justice, reduce the prison population and eliminate racial disparities while making our communities safer.
My father, Major Lance, was a Grammy-nominated singer in the 1960s. He opened for the Beatles. Elton John got his start playing for my dad. For many, he is still revered as a musical icon. But for me, he was simply my daddy.
What I learned that day he was arrested was simple: Sometimes really good people make bad decisions. Only later in life did I realize that my dad was dealing with challenges related to addiction. Born on a share-croppers’ farm in the Mississippi Delta and raised in the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago, he had not gone to college and did not have many viable job options. When his music stopped selling, he still had to feed a family and keep the lights on.
My father received a 10-year sentence in 1978 for possessing and selling cocaine. He served three years in prison, and it was the death of our family. My parents divorced and my mother worked two jobs and went to cosmetology school at night in order to make ends meet. When my father went to prison, it felt as if I had lost not one, but both of my parents.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s population yet incarcerates more than 25% of the world’s prisoners. Disparities are even more striking along racial and ethnic lines. Recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show black and non-white Hispanic inmates represent 33% and 23% of the nation’s prison population, respectively.
Compounding this reality are significant disparities in the types of offenses people are incarcerated for — like the possession of crack versus powder cocaine — and the resulting criminal sentences. A first-time offender who is caught in possession of or using drugs can be sentenced to years in prison instead of being directed to a treatment program or drug court. This approach presents significant costs to the local, state, or federal governments jailing them, and it also denies individuals the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to their families and communities.
All of this is why it’s essential to pursue Biden’s plan immediately.
Biden proposes fundamentally rethinking who we send to jail, how we treat them, and how we get them services before, during, and after they are incarcerated. Like the former Vice President, I believe we need to tackle racism and income-based disparities in our criminal justice system, including extreme sentencing for non-violent crimes. Through his plan, Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice, Biden proposes an innovative $20 billion program to spur states and cities to shift focus from incarceration to prevention. In order to receive this funding, states like Georgia would have to eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes while taking action to reduce their overall prison rates. He has called for an end to incarceration for drug use alone and diverting these individuals to drug courts and treatment.
In Atlanta, we are in the process of converting our city’s detention center – a building that once housed ICE detainees and non-violent offenders — into a center for equity, health, and wellness. Those transitioning from incarceration and facing challenges getting on their feet will be able to access resources such as job training, education, social services, child care, and housing. Biden’s plan would help scale efforts like these nationwide.
The former Vice President and I also agree that we must end the practice of criminalizing poverty in America by eliminating cash bail. One of the first pieces of legislation I championed and signed into law as mayor ended the city’s cash bail bond system for petty and minor offenses. The prevailing assumption was that Atlanta’s crime numbers would skyrocket, but they did not. Those suffering under this system were people, who by and large, would have ended up in jail if they did not have $200 cash in their pocket at the time of their arrest and could afford to pay to avoid incarceration. Instead of arresting people for minor offenses like urinating in a public space (when they are very likely homeless), we should expand pre-arrest diversion services, as we have in Atlanta, to direct people to the appropriate needed social services to address the underlying causes of recidivism.
As Vice President Biden addresses in his plan, cash bail is a modern-day debtors’ prison and we must stop jailing people for being too poor to pay fines and fees. This disproportionately harms low-income individuals and helps create a cycle of poverty that often plagues families for years. If bail cannot be paid, the individual remains incarcerated, which often leads to loss of a job, significant probation fees — which cuts into the already thin margin of ability to pay other bills — and deeply disrupts a family financially and emotionally.
Like too many others in communities of color, I experienced this firsthand when, as a teenager, I was in the car with a family member who was arrested and jailed for simply having an expired license plate.
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As a little girl, my weekends went from ballet classes and dance recitals to weekend trips to visit my father in prison. I still vividly remember seeing swarms of black men in prison and the tears streaming down the faces of young mothers and children desperate for more time with them. Things might have been different if my father and those men had other options, either before or after their arrests. While we cannot change the past, we can make the future for these individuals and their families and communities stronger and more successful through alternative approaches to criminal justice for non-violent drug offenses.
Biden’s proposal is not only smart policy and necessary, but deeply meaningful for the lives of black and brown Americans.