Biden Tiptoes Around Past Actions While Trying to Claim He Supports Criminal Justice Reforms

Joe Biden
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Vice President Joe Biden may have the most political experience out of the crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, but his lengthy political career could be coming back to bite him.

Many of the 22 candidates in the Democratic presidential primary have come out in support of policies that could address the problem of mass incarceration in the United States. Despite having just 5 percent of the planet’s population, one in four people incarcerated worldwide are in the U.S. — a problem that both parties contributed to and both parties are looking to solve.

Unfortunately for Biden, his record on criminal justice isn’t flattering to current trends.

In 1994, the then-senator helped draft the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This legislative package ramped up federal sentencing guidelines, including a “three-strike” mandate that required life imprisonment after being found guilty of three violent crimes. Additionally, the legislation increased funding for more police officers and prison facilities.

Beyond imprisonment, Biden’s 1994 bill added 60 crimes that could be met with the death penalty.

During a campaign event on Tuesday, Biden claimed that his bill didn’t impact mass incarceration and defended his legislation. He argued that his bill has little to do with the national prison population because it only impacts federal prisoners, who only make up about 10 percent of the U.S. prison population.

“Folks, let’s get something straight,” Biden told a crowd at a campaign event in New Hampshire on Tuesday. “This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration — it did not generate mass incarceration.”

As a CNN fact check noted, however, Biden didn’t mention that his legislation funded an increase in police and prisons and may have influenced states to pen their own “three-strike” legislation — which was part of the national “tough on crime” trend in the U.S. at the time. While one bill isn’t responsible for the total mass incarceration problem, it didn’t prevent it, either.

Biden argued that he pushed the legislation through because he wanted to reduce sentencing disparities between black and white Americans.

“We set up same time for the same crime,” Biden said during the campaign stop. “And we lowered every federal sentence except two: carjacking, which I opposed, as well as three strikes you’re out, which I opposed.”

While that may have been a goal of Biden’s legislation, it didn’t pan out. As the Sentencing Project notes, racial disparities are still a huge problem in U.S. sentencing. A key reason those disparities still exists is that Biden’s 1994 bill had longer prison sentences associated with crack — a drug more widely used by black Americans at the time — than cocaine.

Biden admitted that was a “big mistake” during his campaign event.

It didn’t take long for his opponents to use this as a campaign tool. As his critics noted, both he and his fellow front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), voted for the bill.

While Democrats squabble over criminal justice reform, President Donald Trump has championed the issue since taking control of the Oval Office. As IJR previously reported, the president has been commended for his efforts on the First Step Act from both Kim Kardashian West and CNN host Van Jones.

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