One of the sore spots liberals had with Joe Biden during his 2020 campaign was his co-authorship of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bill which many blame for mass incarceration of minorities.
It wasn’t just that one bill, either. As The Washington Post pointed out in a Jan. 11 article, Biden said in 1989 that former President George H.W. Bush wasn’t doing enough to lock “violent thugs” up. “During that time, Biden sponsored bill after bill that would do just that, helping to usher in an era of mass incarceration that would define criminal justice policy for decades and fall heavily on Black and Brown communities,” The Post’s Justin Jouvenal wrote.
Leave aside how truthful you think that statement is. On the left, this will be a defining issue for Biden, one that could prove those who doubted his progressive bona fides wrong.
On one hand, you have the fact Biden has called on Congress to send him the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act — or SAFE Act, proof of the absurd lengths politicians will go to in order to make their legislation acronym-friendly. The criminal justice reform bill would address everything from sentencing to prison alternatives. That long-stuck legislation is rather modest, but it’s a start for the administration.
On the other hand, you have Lisa Monaco.
Monaco, a former homeland security adviser to Barack Obama, helped vet Joe Biden’s running mate choices. She also helped sentence a black man to over a quarter of a century behind bars for selling $20 of heroin, according to the Daily Caller News Foundation.
In 2003, when Monaco was an assistant U.S. attorney working on the case of Reginald C. Steward, she helped secure a 27-year sentence following his conviction. That conviction was upheld by an appeals court in 2007, although the judge said the court found the evidence not “overwhelming.”
“Defendant was convicted of unlawful distribution of heroin after a jury trial,” she wrote.
“The government utilized expert testimony regarding the practice of drug distribution operations and eyewitness testimony,” she added.
“The defendant was sentenced to 27 years of incarceration, with all but 180 months sentence suspended.”
That case is likely to get a bit more scrutiny, particularly because Steward’s co-defendant was sentenced to just 12 months after pleading guilty to a drug distribution charge in a different case, according to the DCNF.
“Monaco did not give more detail about what role she played on the case. She forwarded a request for comment to the Department of Justice,” the outlet reported. “A spokesman for the agency was unable to provide information about the case prior to publication of this article and did not offer comment. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.”
Steward may have had prior convictions, it’s worth noting.
“Records from the D.C. superior court list a Reginald Steward as being sentenced to two years in jail for an attempted robbery in 1984. A man by the same name was sentenced to 20 months in prison in 1987 for distributing cocaine. A man named Reginald Steward who pleaded guilty in 1990 to distributing heroin was sentenced to three years in jail, according to superior court records,” according to the DCNF.
However, records for the Steward case prosecuted by Monaco weren’t available when the outlet reported the story on Monday. He would go on to serve 13 years of his 27-year sentence, and was discharged from federal prison on Oct. 31, 2016. A request for early release on good behavior was denied three years earlier.
In 2002, Steward was arrested by Washington, D.C. police, after prosecutors said that officer Clarence Brooks bought heroin off of him and co-defendant Bobby Praylow.
“During the sting, Brooks asked Praylow for two dime bags of heroin, worth $20,” the DCNF reported. “Praylow took the money and walked up to a group of people, one of whom Brooks identified as Steward, the court filing says.
“Brooks, who testified he was 15 to 20 feet away from the transaction, said he heard Praylow say ‘two’ before a man he later identified as Steward bent over to pick up two ziplock bags laying on the ground. Brooks said the bags contained a white powder.
“Steward and Praylow were arrested after another police officer who was monitoring the sting operation followed and arrested them, according to the appeals court document.”
However, no drugs were found on Steward when he was taken into custody. Furthermore, at least four other witnesses, including Praylow, said he may not have been involved in the drug transaction.
One federal case does not a career make and, in terms of her ability to get confirmed, Steward’s 27-year sentence shouldn’t be a big deal. Monaco’s role in the Obama administration, as well as her senior positions at the Department of Justice and the FBI, will likely overshadow that.
However, inasmuch as President Biden has problems with the left believing he’s going to deliver on substantive criminal justice reforms, this has the potential to make his relationship with the party’s progressive wing more fractious.
It’s not just Democrats, either. Remember, former President Trump made criminal justice reform one of his signature initiatives. The optics aren’t great when Donald J. Trump commutes long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes while Joseph R. Biden appoints a woman who secured them. That’s going to strain a lot of the goodwill Biden has gotten from the criminal justice reform crowd.
“I will say, there’s a lot of skepticism from people about him taking down the house he helped build,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told The Washington Post for the outlet’s piece on Biden and mass incarceration. “I take him at his word. … I think the country’s moved and I think a lot of people have.”
Lisa Monaco may make taking Biden at his word a little bit harder.
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