Midwest Dispatch: As Crime Increases, Biden Pursues the Usual Non-Solutions | #College. | #Students

It has been a summer of crime, in Minneapolis and around the nation. Here, the statistics are staggering. In comparison to the first half of 2020, the number of people shot in the city has roughly doubled, along with the number of homicides.

Perhaps we should instead take a moment to acknowledge that our past failures have led us to this point, where we stand on the brink of systemic change but remain unwilling to follow through on it.

The numbers offer a cold comparison of one year to the next, while the specific incidents often seem shockingly brazen. In the span of two weeks this spring, three young children were shot in the head in Minneapolis in separate and random occurrences; two have since died.

And just last week, a father was shot in the head on a suburban Minneapolis highway while driving his son home from a baseball game, apparently after getting into some sort of minor traffic altercation with the shooter.

The pain is palpable; the solutions are not.

This week, President Joe Biden is meeting with top officials, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, to “promote his administration’s strategy to combat an alarming rise in gun violence,” according to The New York Times.

Don’t worry; nothing too radical is on the table. Biden is reportedly taking pains to address the upsurge in crime head-on while also not wading into any “defund the police” waters.

We know this, the Times article states, because Eric Adams—the former police officer and current New York City mayoral candidate known for being “tough on crime”—is among  Biden’s guests. Adams isn’t an anomaly; several police chiefs will also attend.

Biden’s crime prevention plans instead tread very familiar ground, with an emphasis on encouraging local officials to add more police officers to curb gun violence.

This is either the right approach, as some may argue, or a nod to the definition of insanity. If we keep doing the same thing over and over again, should we expect different results?

Perhaps we should instead take a moment to acknowledge that our past failures have led us to this point, where we stand on the brink of systemic change but remain unwilling to follow through on it.

Here’s an example of what I’m thinking about.

In 1994, Senator Joe Biden spoke out in favor of the 1994 crime bill that he was instrumental in drafting. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, Biden can be seen standing on the Senate floor, clapping his hands together, and insisting that there is a clear and simple way to combat crime.

“You must take back the streets,” Biden says emphatically, “and you take back the streets by more cops, more prisons, more physical protection for the people.”

He then throws a bone to the bleeding hearts among us by saying, yes, first-time offenders should be “diverted from the system” before articulating the key point that continues to haunt  current police reform efforts.

“I hope,” an energized Biden says, “that we will have ended, once and for all, this notion, that is a hangover from the ‘60s, that somehow, Democrats are weak on crime, and Democratic presidents are weak on crime.”

He then animatedly reminds his audience that he, as a senator from Delaware, has been a part of every crime bill that’s come down the pike since the mid-1970s.

Weak on crime? Not Biden.

I know this blemish, so to speak, from Biden’s past is not news to political observers, especially progressives. But let’s zero in on one consequence of Biden’s earlier enthusiasm for more cops, more prisons, and more punishment: the loss of Pell Grant funding for people who are incarcerated.

Pell Grants offer low-income students greater access to higher education without requiring them to take on more debt, since the grants do not have to be paid back. They stem from the 1960s, when a college degree was becoming more of a necessity.

The grants are named after Claiborne Pell, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. Pell wanted incarcerated people to be able to access educational opportunities; in fact, it was a key reason for his proposal to provide funding for all students with financial need.

“Education is our primary hope for rehabilitating prisoners,” he said, although that was, and still is, a controversial premise among many. That’s because the desire to punish, oppress, and exploit those who end up in prison often wins out against any impulse towards justice or mercy.

Biden favored a tough guy approach to crime back in 1994, and the results of that have led us to this place, where gun violence is rising along with the perception that crime overall is simply out of control. 

Hands are wringing everywhere, but few people in power, such as Biden or Adams, seem willing to even appear interested in defunding or abolishing the police or otherwise dismantling the prison industrial complex that undergirds this nation.

Aside from an overhaul of our current criminal justice system, restoring Pell Grants to incarcerated people immediately is an action we can insist on. Congress has reversed the 1994 ban on these grants for those incarcerated, but the Education Department has until 2023 to implement the change.

People who are incarcerated can’t wait until then.

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