WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden took executive actions on Tuesday to roll back the U.S. government’s use of private prisons and bolster anti-discrimination enforcement in housing, part of what he called an initiative to tackle U.S. systemic racism.
“We’ve never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation - to state the obvious - that all people are created equal and have a right to be treated equally,” Biden told reporters.
Four steps announced by the White House are part of a package by the Democratic president to roll back policies of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump and promote racial justice reforms that he pledged to address during the election campaign.
Biden will also sign an order on Tuesday underscoring the federal government’s commitment to Native American tribal sovereignty and memos condemning discrimination against Asian Americans and Americans of Pacific Island descent.
“President Biden is committed to reducing mass incarceration while making our communities safer - that starts with ending the federal government’s reliance on private prisons,” Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy adviser, told reporters at the White House.
Shares of two leading publicly traded companies that operate private prisons fell after the White House announcement, with GEO Group Inc down 3.5% in afternoon trading and Corecivic Inc off 3.7%.
Rice said private prisons, whose use increased under Trump, “profiteer off of federal prisoners” and were found by the Justice Department’s inspector general to be less safe for correctional officers and inmates.
Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration tried to reduce reliance on private prisons as part of a broad effort to cut the overall prison population.
But Trump’s Justice Department rescinded that policy and separately ordered federal prosecutors to pursue filing criminal charges that would impose mandatory minimum sentences - policy changes that were a boon for private prisons.
Biden’s order will impact only the Justice Department’s federal contracts with private prison companies and does not apply to the Department of Homeland Security, which uses private prisons to detain immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Talks in Congress toward police reform stalled late in Trump’s presidency despite widespread protests connected with incidents including the death of Black man George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020.
The Biden administration’s newly announced fair-housing policy will require the Department of Housing and Urban Development to study and counteract the racially discriminatory impacts of previous policies.
It noted that federal law requires the government to advance fair housing and combat housing discrimination, including biased policies that appear neutral but have an unjustified discriminatory effect in practice.
Rice said long-standing U.S. racial inequities have been compounded by current crises including a COVID-19 pandemic that has sickened and killed racial minorities at higher rates, with these communities also experiencing heightened unemployment and food insecurity.
“For too many American families,” Rice said, “systemic racism and inequality in our economy, laws and institutions still put the American dream far out of reach.”
The support of Black voters proved critical to Biden first in winning this party’s presidential nomination and then in defeating Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
Rice acknowledged that Biden’s executive actions could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by a future president and said she did not rule out seeking congressional passage of legislation to cement the actions into law.
Beyond the four steps announced on Tuesday, the Biden administration is expected to reinstate Obama’s curbs on the transfer of military equipment to local police agencies, according to a document seen by Reuters that was circulated to lawmakers by the White House. It was not immediately clear when the White House would do so.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Mike Stone, Ted Hesson and David Shephardson; Writing by Will Dunham and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham, Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)