"It is just the beginning of my administration's plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system," Biden promised in January as he signed an executive order on the matter.
Also, the administration is expected to encourage a reduction in prison population bulging from the state and local jails by allowing coronavirus relief dollars to reduce overcrowding.
However, Biden overlooks a prime target -- and in some ways, much easier -- for improving conditions of prisoners: The federal Bureau of Prisons.
Most criminal justice reforms require legislation or action by local officials, but Biden and his Justice Department can take control of the federal prison system. There are many areas that need improvement.
Even before the coronavirus, federal prisons were plagued by violence, suicide, escapes, understaffing and health concerns. The pandemic made things worse. These facilities will now take in more prisoners from institutions outside the government's control.
Advocates say that while the Democratic president has talked a good game, his actions tell a different story, particularly because the Justice Department has refused to reverse a legal opinion requiring inmates released during the pandemic to return to prison.
Inimai Chettiar, of the Justice Action Network, stated that "there isn't an appetite within the administration to act."
The administration has made infrastructure its top legislative priority and is determined to stop rising coronavirus infections. Other issues, such as prisons, have provoked passionate speeches but not much action. Officials from the administration claim it has only been six months and that half-year has been affected by the virus. But, there is more to come.
But a key part of Biden's agenda is combating racism, and nowhere is racial equity a more fraught issue than inside prisons -- institutions that first proliferated in the 1800s as a way to lock away Black men for minor offenses after the abolition of slavery and that are still disproportionately filled with Black people.
Biden stated that the prisons order was issued in January's speech on racial equality. He said it was an attempt to stop corporations profiting from incarcerating -- incarceration which is less humane, and less secure, as the studies prove."
Nevertheless, federal prisoners are on the rise. Federal prisons are often used to house defendants who have committed a crime that crosses state lines or violated federal laws. Federal inmates number approximately 156,000. There are approximately 156,000 federal inmates. 38% of them are Black, 57% are White, 1.5% Asian, and 2.4% Native American.
The majority of them are serving sentences between five and twenty years. 46% are for drug offenses. Another 20% are for weapons or explosives, and another 20% are arson.
The laws that send someone to prison can't be controlled by the administration. It can, however, control staffing, transparency and use of solitary confinement.
The head of the Bureau of Prisons is a Trump holdover, Michael Carvajal, who has been in charge as the coronavirus raged behind bars, infecting more than 43,000 federal inmates. He also oversaw an unprecedented run of federal executions in the last six months of Donald Trump's presidency that was a likely virus super spreader.
Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola Law School professor, says that they should ask whether the director's job is more than keeping operations running smoothly.
She says that "real leadership" would be to gather people in prison, wardens, and programming staff together to say "OK, we have a huge problem...how do we solve it?"
Armstrong and other advocates do not diminish what has been done already in six months, including the private prisons order and a moratorium by the Justice Department that halted federal executions.
They had higher hopes of action, and a more definitive ending to executions. This is especially true because Biden was the first president to publicly oppose the death penalty. They hoped that he would make it harder for the Justice Department to implement changes made under President Donald Trump.
The "First Step Act," approved in 2018, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders, eases mandatory minimum sentences and encourages inmates to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism, with credits that can be used to gain an earlier release.
These programs are impossible to complete right now because not enough workers are available. Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs in the United States are vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates.
"There must be enough people in prison to keep prisoners safe. Maria Morris, of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, stated that they should be able access the programs that should allow them to be released.
Trump's Bureau of Prisons didn't grant the inmates the right to early release credits. A lack of uniform hygiene and mask policies led to widespread coronavirus epidemics.
As part of efforts to alleviate pandemic conditions, more than 28,000 prisoners were released. They had to meet certain criteria including not posing a threat to others. About 1,900 of the over 7,000 inmates who are still under home confinement (the others have completed their sentences) will be released. Advocates question the necessity to send them back given the high-transmissible delta variant.
In the final weeks of Trump's presidency, a legal opinion stated that the remaining inmates would need to be returned to prison after the coronavirus epidemic ended. The Biden administration seems to have accepted this legal interpretation.
This approach frustrates civil rights advocates and advocates who feel Biden ignores opportunities for real reform.
"If the president really wants to walk back from his 1994 crime bill and support criminal justice reform it would just be in conflict to allow them to return to prison," Chettiar stated, referring to Biden’s support of a bill that was meant to reduce crime but ended up sending thousands more people to prison.
The president's unwillingness to intervene in matters that could have been resolved with a simple pen stroke or internal change puzzles advocates for the incarcerated.
Chettiar stated, "It is evident that it is their willingness rather than their inability."