Aghast over former President Donald Trump’s decision to authorize a series of last-minute federal executions before departing the White House, progressives are starting to exert pressure on President Joe Biden to get specific about his timeline and planned approach to ending capital punishment.
The argument, shared widely among left-aligned Democrats in Congress and reform advocates, is rooted in the belief that being antithetical to Trump on the death penalty is a crucial first step to eradicating a racially biased criminal justice system. As Biden’s first 100 days in office begin to take shape with no political barriers, many believe the newly elected president has a moral imperative to actively help dismantle racist systems in government early on. And they are not expected to ease up as the administration works through its preliminary priorities.
“There’s all kinds of room for what I’ll call ‘political jujitsu’ that’s going to happen on the part of the Biden administration that is... going to seek to slow down the progressive movement,” said Stacey Walker, a supervisor in Linn County, Iowa, and appointee to the criminal justice “unity task force” developed between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during the 2020 presidential election.
“This one is different to me,” Walker said.
After Biden secured the Democratic nomination, his campaign worked with Sanders’ allies like Walker to form party consensus around key criminal justice and prison reforms. Ending the death penalty—a stance Biden started to come around to early into his bid—was one of the strongest unifiers between the two factions, according to a source involved in the discussions.
Now, with a Democrat in the White House, many believe they have a supportive ally who will set a contrasting tone to Trump and temporarily halt the practice by executive action. With control of both chambers in Congress additionally in their favor, those same voices are confident that legislation will pass relatively easily, bolstered by approval by rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans alike. According to a recent Gallup survey, support for the practice is strikingly low.
“We have to continue to apply pressure, to keep up the fight, to halt federal executions, to ultimately abolish the federal death penalty in its totality,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), a leading criminal justice reform advocate in the House in a segment on The Appeal. “They have a mandate to do this from the people.”
The contours of Biden’s stated early-term agenda includes a sharpened focus on addressing racial inequity as one of many national crises. After a summer of mass protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police, Biden built out the specifics of his proposed justice agenda. In his Jan. 20 inauguration address, he explicitly said: “We can deliver racial justice,” indicating that he believes the goal is achievable. “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” he continued. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
As his early days in office unfold in the wake of a violent insurrection at the Capitol carried out by predominantly white perpetrators, the multifacets of justice issues have returned to full view. That notion was further tested after Trump made the alarming decision to execute five individuals just before his term in office ended, bringing the total to 13 during his administration.
“From our perspective, there should be no roadblocks,” said Sakira Cook, justice reform director at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “It’s widely understood and accepted that three things are true: Ending the death penalty is essential to advancing any other priority around transforming the criminal legal system; there is growing momentum against the death penalty across this country and at the federal level; and the death penalty is equally flawed across racial lines in particular.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has so far declined to provide specifics on Biden’s plans and timing. Asked on Inauguration Day by a reporter about a possible moratorium, she reiterated the president’s prior objection to the practice, adding that it “remains his view” today.
Some Democrats and advocates argue that Biden would be wise to sign an executive order as a first signal of leadership, an action that would draw an intense contrast between his start and Trump’s finish. But without guidance yet from the administration, congressional progressives are moving forward legislatively in the interim.
Last week, Pressley and Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), a leading Black Lives Matter activist turned freshman member of Congress, sent a letter to Biden contextualizing the issue as a way to demonstrate a broader commitment to racial equality. Pressley’s House bill, known as the the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act, along with Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) version in the Senate, would “end the death penalty once and for all,” the letter states.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), deputy whip of the House Progressive Caucus, said he believes there is growing momentum in Congress around the issue, particularly now with Democrats in control and an on-the-record pledge from the president. “There is traction in Congress to abolish it,” he said during a forum with Columbia University.
While Espaillat believes that a moratorium is a good initial step, he also acknowledges that penning a temporary end to the practice does not go far enough. Executive orders, which were frequently used by both the Obama and Trump administrations, are subject to reversal by the political party in power and are seen as non-permanent solutions.
“It is an extension or continuation of the progress Barack Obama made,” said state Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-TN), a Biden appointee on the Biden-Sanders task force. “I know that people were pleased with the Obama administration, but some felt they wished additional drug-related sentences would be commuted.”
There is a strong sentiment among Democrats supportive of former President Barack Obama that the 46th president should go further than his old boss on the issue. During his eight years in office, Obama commuted only two federal death sentences. Part of the thinking that Biden should take more action stems from his role in the 1994 crime bill, which significantly expanded the number of offenses for which individuals could be put to death. On the campaign trail, Biden called it a “mistake.”
There are currently 49 individuals on death row, according to the most recent data from the Death Penalty Information Center, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man who plotted and carried out a deadly bombing during the 2013 Boston Marathon. The Supreme Court is expected to announce soon whether they will hear the case. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has stated opposition to Tsarnaev receiving the death penalty.
“The government’s got to be better than the basic instincts of man,” Walker said. “It’s got to be bigger than that. And it’s got to recognize that this is a relic of a pre-feudal era of this world where someone in a high chair gets to decide who lives and dies. That’s not who we are.”