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Donald Trump
stated on July 14, 2020 in remarks in the White House Rose Garden:
A Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders “unity” policy document shows “they want to abolish our police departments. They want to abolish our prisons, I guess.”
true pants-fire
President Donald Trump holds a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on July 14, 2020. (AP) President Donald Trump holds a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on July 14, 2020. (AP)

President Donald Trump holds a news conference in the White House Rose Garden on July 14, 2020. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson July 17, 2020

No, Joe Biden will not ‘abolish’ police or prisons, as Donald Trump said

If Your Time is short

• The Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders “unity document” does not say anything about abolishing police departments or getting rid of all prisons.

• In fact, the document includes several passages that clearly indicate that police and prisons will exist in the future, but under proposed reforms. 

• Criminologists say Biden’s policies are within the political and academic mainstream. Many represent a continuation of policies enacted by Trump himself in the First Step Act.

In a break from tradition, President Donald Trump used the White House’s Rose Garden as the venue for a lengthy rhetorical shot at his 2020 campaign rival, Joe Biden. Trump particularly targeted a policy document recently agreed to by representatives of the Biden campaign as well as allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who gave Biden a strong challenge from the ideological left in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

"The Biden-Sanders agenda is the most extreme platform of any major party nominee, by far, in American history," he said.

Trump went on to call out many parts of the platform, including its policies on criminal justice.

"We could go on for days," Trump said. "Incentivize prison closure. So they want to close our prisons. They now want to abolish our police departments. They want to abolish our prisons, I guess."

This is wildly untrue.

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to our inquiries.

Does Biden want to "abolish our police departments"?

As we’ve reported, some protesters using the term "defund the police" want to eliminate police departments entirely. But most officials do not want to eliminate the police; they want to revisit the functions of police departments and reroute some of their funding toward social services.

But Biden explicitly rejected the "defund the police" label.

"While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police," Biden wrote in an op-ed in USA Today. "The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.

So what does Biden support?

The unity document backs a wide array of criminal-justice provisions, including decriminalization of marijuana by jurisdictions that want to do so and repealing federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Not only does the unity document not say anything about abolishing the police, it includes several passages that are based on the assumption that there will be police going forward. They include:

• "We will require officer training in effective nonviolent tactics, appropriate use of force, implicit bias, and peer intervention, both at the academy and on the job."

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• "Democrats will reinvigorate community policing approaches, so officers on the beat better serve the neighborhoods they work in."

• "Democrats also support measures to increase diversity among the ranks of police departments, so our law enforcement agencies look more like the communities they serve. And we will seek increased funding for officer health and well-being in police departments across the country, including for personal safety equipment and mental health services."

Does Biden want to "abolish our prisons"?

There is one type of prison that the unity document does support abolishing: privately owned and run prisons.

"Private profit should not motivate the provision of vital public services, including in the criminal justice system," the unity document says. "Democrats support ending the use of private prisons and private detention centers."

But to equate that with abolishing all prisons, as Trump did, is highly misleading.

Biden wants to change some aspects of prisons. "We also believe that too many of our jails and prisons subject people to inhumane treatment, and will work to end practices like solitary confinement for adults and juveniles," the unity document says. 

Biden also supports reducing what he considers to be the outsized role of prisons in the criminal justice system.

"Democrats know we can end the era of mass incarceration and dramatically reduce the number of Americans held in jails and prisons while continuing to reduce crime rates, which have fallen steadily from their peak nearly three decades ago," the unity document says.

However, the document envisions that prisons will exist in the future, just with a different model of administration and changes for some of the policies they currently enforce.

We’ll close by highlighting similarities between what Biden hopes to achieve and what Trump has already done.

Trump in 2018 signed the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. This measure tried to move the law in directions that are similar to aspects of the Biden platform, including efforts to reduce the severity of sentences, a greater emphasis on policies to reduce convict recidivism, and making retroactive the end to the disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Our ruling

Trump said that a Biden-Sanders "unity" policy document shows that "they want to abolish our police departments. They want to abolish our prisons, I guess."

The document does not say anything about abolishing police departments or getting rid of all prisons. The document includes several passages that clearly indicate that police and prisons will exist in the future, with proposed changes. Criminologists say some of Biden’s policies represent a continuation of policies enacted by Trump himself in the First Step Act.

We rate the statement Pants on Fire.

Our Sources

Donald Trump, remarks at the White House, July 14, 2020

Biden campaign, Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations, accessed July 16, 2020

CNN, "Fact check: Trump deceives about Sanders-Biden task force proposals to make Biden sound 'extreme,'" July 15, 2020

Vox.com, "The First Step Act, Congress’s criminal justice reform bill, explained," Dec. 11, 2018

PolitiFact, "Ad Watch: Fact-checking the Trump campaign’s 'defunding the police' ad," July 8, 2020

Email interview with Candace McCoy, professor in the doctoral program in criminal justice at the City University of New York, July 16, 2020

Email interview with James Alan Fox, Northeastern University criminologist, July 16, 2020

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No, Joe Biden will not ‘abolish’ police or prisons, as Donald Trump said

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