In exclusive PhillyTrib interview, Biden calls for criminal justice reforms, including changes to qualified immunity

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 10: Democratic Presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the media and a small group of supporters with his wife Dr. Jill Biden during a primary night event on March 10, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Six states - Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Washington, and North Dakota held nominating contests today. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

By Michael D’Onofrio

Former Vice President Joe Biden called for criminal justice reforms as protests and civic unrest continued to roil the nation on Tuesday following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.

Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said America was a place where “too often, just the color of your skin puts your life at risk” while speaking in Philadelphia from the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall.

Biden said Floyd’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — did not die with him but continued to echo throughout the nation.

He called on Congress to act now on legislation that would place a federal ban on police using choke holds.

In a brief telephone interview with The Philadelphia Tribune later Tuesday, Biden also called for reforms to hold police more accountable when they are accused of abuse and wrongdoing, including seeking to reform qualified immunity.

This doctrine has been used to shield individual police officers accused of using excessive force from facing lawsuits from victims and their families, and paying financial settlements, according to a Reuters investigation.

In addition, Biden said he would grant more authority to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department to root out systemic abuse in police departments and make it easier to put in place federal monitors.

Biden said he would replace jail time for drug offenses with mandatory rehabilitation and wipe out criminal records for the formerly incarcerated, which now prevent them from receiving federal grants and other assistance.

“Criminal justice is part of the problem,” Biden said. “It should be a criminal justice reform system. Not a single person should be going to jail for drug abuse.”

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He added, “No more money dealing with sending people to jail or building jails, but building rehab centers.”

Biden was on the ballot for president in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. He is expected to win his party’s nomination and take on President Donald Trump in the general election on Nov. 3.

During Biden’s decades in office, he has supported criminal justice laws and policies that hurt African Americans. But Biden brushed aside concerns his past record would hurt his support with Black Americans in the general election.

“There’s no evidence of that,” Biden said about whether his past support for policies negatively affected African Americans.

“I have to earn their vote, I don’t take anything for granted,” he added. “But I want them to take a look at my record and I’ve done what I’ve said I’m going to do.”

During his time as a senator from Delaware in the 1980s and 90s, Biden supported policies for minimum sentences for drug offences; harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine than powder cocaine; and get-tough-on-crime legislation, among other things. He previously supported policies that included his opposition to busing that would racially integrate schools.

Today, African Americans make up 38% of the nation’s jail population, yet account for 13.4% of the U.S. population.

While not apologizing, Biden said it was a “mistake” for him to support sending more funding to state prisons as a senator and said he opposed many of those drug policies.

“When you look back on votes that were cast, you have to look at the totality of what was going on at the time,” he said.

Asked how he would pitch himself to Millennial Black voters, who may be unfamiliar with his long record, in a single sentence, Biden said: “Watch me.”

Philly leaders gather to address George Floyd murder and issues facing the community

“If you like what you see: Help me out,” he added. “Watch what I’m doing, what I’m proposing, what I’m going to do as president of the United States of America.”

Biden promised during his speech Tuesday morning to increase access to health care and improve the pay of first-responders and other workers who have stayed on jobs deemed essential during the pandemic, should he win the presidency.

And in his interview with the Tribune, Biden criticized the federal stimulus stimulus packages passed in Congress for responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic, saying much needed funding was not going to communities of color, poor communities and small businesses.

If elected, he pledged to reboot the $1,200 direct payments to Americans “for as long as the crisis lasts” and maintain the extra $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits, the latter of which is set to expire in July.

Biden pitched a trillion dollar infrastructure plan to help the nation recover from the pandemic, which has resulted in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and tossed more than 40 million Americans out of work.

As the nation recovers economically, Biden said he would seek additional reforms, including childcare subsidies and federally required paid-leave for employees unable to work because they must care for a sick family member.

“There are a lot of things that can be done quickly that, in fact, would make a big difference,” he said, “particularly in minority communities and communities that are basically poor.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared