NowThis Presidential Forum: Joe Biden on Criminal Legal Reform

The president traded a spirited back-and-forth with JJ Velazquez, a man who was wrongfully incarcerated for more than 2 decades.

There are almost 2 million people spread out across the U.S. prison system, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Of that 2 million, studies estimate that between 4-6% of incarcerated folks are innocent, and 1 in 20 criminal cases result in a wrongful conviction.

During his 2020 campaign, President Biden pledged to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.” Since taking office, his admin’s actual results have drawn a “mixed report card” from criminal legal reform advocates. However, Biden did draw praise this month for his decision to pardon all cases of simple cannabis possession at the federal level.

Activist and reform advocate Jon-Adrian ‘JJ’ Velazquez is just one of the million BIPOC Americans who have been affected by failures of the criminal legal system. Velazquez himself spent 23 years in prison due to being wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, in large part due to tampered evidence, bribed witnesses, and faulty detective work.

During NowThis’ Presidential Forum, Velazquez had a chance to ask Biden directly about the possibility of creating clear, uniform standards for clemency.

Velazquez: Good afternoon, President Biden. Obviously, being wrongfully convicted is one of America’s worst nightmares. It certainly was for me for almost 24 years, yet this is only one of the major flaws in our broken legal system. Fortunately for me, I was able to be released through executive clemency, and it was based on huge community support and the work that I was doing in the developmental voices from within, which is a movement that we created to help incarcerated people redefine what it means to pay a debt to society. Essentially, clemency is an act of grace that is often rewarded — or actually not often — rewarded to people who demonstrate extraordinary change in their personal development. And they also are able to prove that they are ready to become assets to their community upon their return to society. My question is, how can we create clear, uniform standards for clemency so that incarcerated people are motivated to change and know what they need to accomplish to show that they’re ready to return to their families and communities?

Biden: Well, first of all, on behalf of all society, I apologize for it. I mean, 23 years, my God. I got stopped when I was a young senator trying to see Nelson Mandela [in] South Africa. Afterwards, he heard I — when he got released, he heard, he came to see me in Washington, and he walked up to me. He said, ‘Thank you.’ And I said — I looked at him, I said, ‘How can you not hate?’ He was then president of the country, how can [he] not hate? He said the most incredible thing to me, said the jailers were just doing their job, just doing what they were paid to do. And as I left, they said, ‘Good luck, Nelson.’ Anyway, I admire the hell out of you. Thank you, number one. Number two, I don't think — I know you can't set a standard for clemency. You can’t write a law saying, under these circumstances, and the chief executive authority to clemency like the governor did for you, or that I’ve just done for everyone who’s ever been convicted of the possession of marijuana and smoking marijuana. I can only do it in the federal prisons, for example. So I’ve changed the lives of thousands of people because, you know as well as I do, unless you’re able to achieve the status you’ve achieved even after you’re released, what do you do? You still go around with this stigma in many cases. You can’t apply for housing, you can't [inaudible], and so on. So what I’ve done, and I’ve had the Justice Department and the Department of Labor do, is go in and take a look at — while someone’s in prison, for example, did you have access to education in prison?

Velazquez: Yes, I did. Yeah.

Biden: Every single prison — many prisons don’t have any access. Every single one should have access to teaching a trade, or educating, or getting a degree. And when you are released from prison after serving your time, even those people are totally guilty. In the past, they’ve been given 25 bucks and a bus ticket. They end up under the same bridge that caused them to be arrested in the first place. So anybody — this is what we’re doing in federally — anybody who has committed a crime should have access to education in prison. In prison, if they’re in there for a drug offense, they should have drug treatment. And that should not be, if that’s the only crime, it should be mandatory drug treatment, not prison. We should also be in a situation where anyone who is released from prison has access to Pell Grants, to education, to public housing, to all the things that are out there that are available to everybody else, because what’s the thing we wanna do? Give people a second chance. And you’re providing society with a second chance. It’s not like because you didn’t do anything in the first place. But the point is it should be written into the law, which we’re doing in the Justice Department, as well as the Department of Labor, that people have access to education, access to opportunity, and access to everything that’s available for any other citizen if you’ve done your time. I point out to people who come after me, I say, ‘Look, what do you want? You want a safer community or do you wanna release someone who already was in there because they had a bad background and environment, and they probably didn’t have this access? Or do you wanna condemn them for the rest of their lives and make sure that society is damaged as a consequence?’ So it not only makes sense for the individual being released from prison, it makes sense for society. Society. And lastly, I don’t think for most non-violent crimes there should be long prison sentences. I don’t think it should be a much broader application for non-violent crimes in most cases. There’s some non-violent crimes that are horrendous. So the whole idea is how do we reduce violence and crime in America, and at the same time, do it in a way that is also fair to giving people a second chance. But, tell me — what do you think we should be doing?

Velazquez: I think that you’re onto something, but I feel for you, because of the politics that you have to deal with and the platitudes that you get from either other Democrats or Republicans. The reality is higher education is a very qualified tool to help bring down recidivism, which is the act of reoffending and coming back to jail, which means that somebody else is going to get hurt in society when these people are released. The system is not really designed — I’m talking about from lived experience, an innocent person who went into prison — the system is not designed to rehabilitate. I know. And what I’ve learned from my time in prison is that there are a lot of good people who made bad choices when they were too young to really understand the scope of what life consists of. And over time — I’m talking about what I’ve seen generally for 10 years — when a person does at least 10 years, there is a drastic change in that individual, yet parole, yet judges, prosecutors, and anybody else involved in the process of a person being released, because parole commissions reach out to prosecutors to get letters. They’re boiler plate letters that are denying individuals their release, their opportunity to return home without even having an opportunity to see what kind of changes did this individual make. The reality is beyond just higher education. There needs to be more positive programs both in prison and outside of prison. And you’re right, people have to be able to secure employment and housing, because the sad reality is the majority of individuals who are released into society can actually get their hands on a gun or some drugs before they can secure employment or housing. So until we start to look at this differently, and do a strategy reinvestment, and reallocate some of the funding that’s being used to punish these individuals, we are really not getting anywhere. Our recidivism rates indicate that the United States has been failing for decades because people are coming home worse than they went in. And a lot of the programs that individuals are supposed to get in order to become better citizens upon their return, they’re getting in their last two years. Individuals that may have a situation of addiction — that should be addressed the minute you come through the door. In New York state, you are not eligible for that program until you are within two years of your release. So if I have a 25-year-to-life bid, my addiction is not being addressed until 23 years. And throughout that time, if I was to get high, I would be punished. Sometimes we need to really look at this whole thing. And the reason why I’m here is not really to have to ask you questions. It’s to offer you my support. It’s to tell you that I have experience and I know people who have a lot of experience, and we’re willing to share that experience with you so that you can save this country.

Biden: Everything you just said, I’ve already done federally — everything. And here’s the deal. One of the things — one of the reasons I’m against capital punishment is, you know, we have confirmed there’s at least 195 cases since 1972 that the person who was convicted and about to put to death was innocent [and] never committed the crime. Like in your case, you never committed the crime. DNA’s helping change some of that. There’s some changes that are coming forward that make it easier. But everybody in prison should be able to graduate with a trade. Everyone in prison who’s there for a major drug offense, they’re addicted, they should be in mandatory drug treatment in prison. And so what we’re trying to do is change the dynamic of what makes society overall safer and what’s more fair for the people who have been convicted rightly or wrongly. What’s the wisest thing to do? And that’s why the things you’re talking to me about — and we have time, I can go through ‘em — but we’ve done the vast majority of those by executive order in the federal prison system. I can’t do it in the state prison system. What I’m doing in the state prison system is offering encouragement by providing federal assistance if they would do these things. But the idea that there is no access to anything other than to sit in a cell or walk the yard and not have anything to do and not better yourself — intellectually or mentally is a big mistake.

Velazquez: You’re absolutely right. In fact, correctional institutions right now, for the most part, the standard is it’s just a place for you to waste your time. And I have spent decades trying to get individuals to realize that we have to take it upon ourselves to invest in that time so that we can have a better return on our own investment and come home and be the assets that society needs.

The transcript of their exchange has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

For more on the intimate conversations between Biden and young change-makers focused on finding solutions to some of the most critical issues facing their generation, head to the NowThis Presidential Forum homepage.