NASHUA, N.H. – Former Vice President Joe Biden was haunted by his support during the 1990s for anti-crime legislation as he made his first campaign stops in New Hampshire this week, forced to explain backing for tough-on-crime measures that contrast with current enthusiasm for criminal justice reform.
At a campaign stop in Nashua on Wednesday, a female attendee probed the Democratic presidential front-runner about his support for crime legislation and how he would “repair” the harm done by mass incarceration and the war on crime.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which Biden helped craft as a senator, created “three strikes” mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders and increased prison funding by about $10 billion, among other provisions. Criminal justice reform advocates have condemned the law.
Biden shifted the blame for mass incarceration to the states, saying that 92% of prisoners in the U.S. are in state facilities rather than federal facilities.
“This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration — it did not generate mass incarceration,” Biden said.
Biden also brought up brought up the crime bill unprompted at a campaign stop in Hampton, N.H., on Monday in response to a question about what he would do to combat drug addiction.
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“There’s a whole lot of talk about, you know, Biden and the crime bill,” he said, highlighting portions of the bill aimed at prevention, reducing violence against women and regulating firearms.
Some of Biden’s presidential primary rivals have condemned crime legislation that Biden supported. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., criticized “horrible crime bills back in the 1990s” during a CNN town hall in March. In 2017, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said that the “Democratic Party isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill.”
The crime bill also plagued former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president in 2016. Her husband President Bill Cinton signed the legislation and she lobbied for it.
“I’m sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives,” Hillary Clinton said during a 2016 Democratic debate.
Biden in January appeared to indirectly reference and apologize for some of the bill’s measures, but he is not taking an apologetic approach on the campaign trail.
“What happened was, if you go back and look, the black caucus supported the bill,” Biden said in Nashua, arguing that it helped address racial disparities in sentencing.
“We set up same time for the same crime,” Biden said. “And we lowered every federal sentence except two: carjacking, which I opposed, as well as three strikes you’re out, which I opposed.”
Biden conceded, though, that “the big mistake in the crime bill” was sentences relating to crack cocaine. Federal mandatory minimum sentences treated crack cocaine much more harshly than powder cocaine.
“We were told by medical doctors at the time that because it permeated the membrane of the brain more quickly … it was somehow fundamentally different than someone in a beautiful neighborhood like this sniffing a line of cocaine,” Biden said. “I’ve been trying to change that since it passed.”
Biden said it is his view that no one should be locked up for a nonviolent offense.
“We don’t need any more mandatory sentences, period,” Biden said.