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May 27, 2019

Is Joe Biden really "one of the most progressive federal lawmakers in terms of criminal justice policy"?

In part because there are so many Democratic candidates, I have not yet been following all too closely the various discussions surrounding various candidates' statements and histories on crime and punishment.  But because Joe Biden has apparently emerged as a front-runner, and because he has quite the track-record on these issues, I cannot resist some (still very early) coverage of Uncle Joe's place in this space.  In particular, I find notable this recent USA Today commentary by Prof James Alan Fox, which is headlined "Joe Biden reduced murders, reformed criminal justice policy and made America safer." A line from the piece prompted the question in the title of this post, and here is the context:

[R]ecent allegations that Biden bears responsibility for the nation’s mass incarceration problem is not only inaccurate, but downright insulting to a man who has distinguished himself as one of the most progressive federal lawmakers in terms of criminal justice policy.

The years leading up to the much-discussed 1994 Crime Bill were challenging, to say the least, with violent crime rates soaring to record levels.  From 1990 through 1993, for example, nearly 100,000 Americans were murdered, two-thirds by guns, more than in any other similar time span, before or after.  Something had to be done, and Biden had the political will and skill to translate good ideas into effective policy.

As early as 1990, Biden, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recognized and responded to the growing crisis by holding hearings on the nation’s homicide epidemic.  In his introductory remarks, he talked of the 3-Ds — deadly weapons, drugs and demographics.

Biden’s observations were spot on.  The surge in homicide at that time was exclusively among teens and young adults, completely gun-related, and linked to the emerging crack cocaine markets in major cities from New York to Los Angeles.  While the subsequent concern for sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was legitimate, it was crack, not powder, that drove the crime surge some three decades ago.

Biden’s approach was clearly more preventative than punitive.  At the 1990 hearing, for example, he called for investing in drug education for youth and drug treatment for addicts.  In contrast, Sen. Alan Spector, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, argued instead for tougher prosecution and expanding the death penalty.

While it is true that Biden had a major hand in crafting the Crime Bill, his was not the only one, as passage of the massive piece of legislation required bipartisan support and thus much compromise. Reflecting Biden’s influence, the final version of the Crime Bill included over $7 billion for a basket of prevention programs.  However, once Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterms, it became more like a trash basket of prevention.

The Republican “Contract with America” set a new path, shifting the emphasis from early prevention to harsh punishment.  The Contract promised “an anti-crime package including stronger truth-in-sentencing, ‘good faith’ exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer’s ‘crime’ bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools.”  It had become a political liability to advocate prevention.

Whatever share of responsibility that Biden may own for the growth in prison populations over the next decade or more, he should be praised for his central role in pushing legislation that saved thousands of lives.  He was instrumental in helping to get the Brady Law through Congress, after which the nation’s rate of gun homicide started its long-term slide.  He was the chief proponent and author of the Violence Against Women Act, an initiative that helped lower the rate of women murdered by their intimate partners by more than 25% in subsequent years.

The streets of American cities are much safer today than a quarter-century ago before wide-ranging changes in federal crime control policy were enacted. Taken together, Joe Biden deserves credit, not criticism, for all that he has done throughout this career to reduce the number of crime victims and for providing assistance to those unfortunate to become one.

This commentary provides an important reminder that crime rates were so very much higher in the 1980s and 1990s, and thus any look back at crime and punishment policy (and crime and punishment politics) has to be attentive to that reality.  But calling Biden "one of the most progressive federal lawmakers in terms of criminal justice policy" still seems a little rich.

UPDATE: Intriguingly, Prez Trump yesterday afternoon and evening tweeted the following:

I doubt Prez Trump reads this blog, so I am not going to assert that these tweets were a direct response to the question in the title of this post.  But I do think it is an interesting and important indication that Prez Trump is inclined to promote his criminal justice reform record in any battles with Joe Biden.  It also perhaps provides an important opportunity for reform advocates to urge Prez Trump and his Administration to keep moving forward with critical follow-ups to the FIRST STEP Act.

May 27, 2019 at 11:31 AM | Permalink


I sure hope Biden does not get the nomination. That 1994 crime bill was racially motivated to say the least. He has never admitted to being wrong about this bill. What especially gets me is that why black and liberal voters in 1996 still re-elected these Clinton types to the White House. Blacks and liberals should have been in the forefront in forcing the Clinton's out instead of allowing Bill and Hillary to continue the Reagan's racist policies. Biden supports such policies.

Moreover, anybody who cannot keep his hands to himself when he sees young girls is no real advocate of "law'n'order" or "victims' rights". Get rid of Biden now!

Posted by: Bill Delzell | May 28, 2019 10:09:14 AM

The 1994 crime bill had a tremendous impact on incarceration rates. BOP statistics show that at the end of 1992 the federal prison population was 79,678. At the end of 2000 it had increased to 145,125. Joe Biden does have to acknowledge this fact.

It looks like USA Today and other mainstream media have picked their candidate.

Posted by: beth | May 28, 2019 3:01:56 PM

Finally, Biden gets his due.

Posted by: FluffyRoss | May 28, 2019 4:42:17 PM

I have no love for Biden or the crime bill, but let's inject a bit of nuance to what's becoming a narrative about how the Democrats created mass incarceration and the Republicans are the saviors.

There was money in the 1994 crime bill crime prevention at a time the Republican Contract with America wanted even tough provisions, more spending on prisons and when the GOP ridiculed crime prevention. It was Attorney General Barr - same guy who is now Attorney General - who released the 1992 Case For More Incarceration document.

Biden has also recognized violence against women as a problem. Exceedingly few in the GOP or Right on Crime ever discuss this issue. All of the most screwed up comments about rape come from the GOP and they're met with silence by the law and order crowd.

Posted by: Paul | May 29, 2019 9:49:54 AM

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