President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party are at a crossroads on the issue of criminal justice reform. Facing both a backlash and continued bipartisan support for many reforms, President Biden has so far chosen not to make criminal justice reform a priority for the White House, despite running for president on a platform that made more than one hundred commitments on reform. While President Biden hesitates on the issue, advocates continue to push, building strong coalitions and forcing the administration to act. The public, including Republicans and Independents, also continues to understand the need for criminal justice reform, as indicated in recent polling, even as it hesitates on some of the bolder ideas for reform.

This article reviews the recent controversy over the issue of COVID-related transfers of people from prisons to home confinement, and the threat of their reimprisonment, to assess the broader question of which path will President Biden and Democrats choose: reform or backlash? Will the White House and Democrats build on the years of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform and push for popular policies, like drug law reform, as President Biden promised on the campaign trail? Or will it retreat from its campaign commitments in the face of a backlash? This article makes the case for the White House to provide leadership on criminal justice reform and recognize the strong bipartisan support for the issue, despite the challenges posed by a backlash.

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