Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said during Thursday’s televised town hall that his support for the 1994 crime bill was a mistake, although he insisted the main problem was with “what states did locally” under the framework and defended some parts of the initiative as actually leading to lower incarceration rates for African Americans.
An audience member asked Biden during the ABC Town Hall event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “What’s your view on the crime bill that you wrote in 1994, which showed prejudice against minorities?” referring to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which has often been blamed for expanding tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately criminalized black Americans.
Biden began by saying that “things have changed drastically” since the bill was passed, adding, “the crime bill itself did not have mandatory sentences except for two things. It had three strikes and you’re out which I voted against in the crime bill. But it had a lot of other things in it that turned out to be both bad and good.”
He praised the Assault Weapons Ban that was part of the bill, but said one of the bill’s bad aspects was giving more money to states to build prisons.
“And you have 93 out of every 100 people is in a state prison not in a federal prison because they built more prisons,” Biden said.
The former Vice President then said he doesn’t believe anyone should be going to jail for drug use, and called for the decriminalization of marijuana and wiping of records for cannabis use-related offenses.
Townhall host George Stephanopoulos then said: “But in the meantime, an awful lot of people were jailed for minor drug crimes after the…”
“Exactly right,” Biden interjected.
“Was it a mistake to support it?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“Yes it was. But here’s where the mistake came. The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally,” Biden said, adding that “same time for the same crime” concept that was part of the bill actually reduced incarceration rates among African Americans for some types of crimes.
“What happened was it became the same time for the same crime. So it said you had to serve between one and three years. It ended up becoming much lower. Black folks went to jail a lot less than they would have before. But it was a mistake,” Biden said.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act reinforced the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which substantially increased the number of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences, including for marijuana. It also mandated a minimum sentence of 5 years without parole for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine, while mandating the same minimum sentence for 500 grams of powder cocaine, a disparity that the Brookings Institution linked to higher incarceration rates among blacks as crack is more prevalent in black neighborhoods.
“While the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, enacted under the Obama-Biden administration, reduced the crack/powder cocaine disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, the damage had been done, and its effects continue to this day,” wrote Rashawn Ray and William A. Galston, in a paper examining the impacts on mass incarceration of the 1994 crime bill.
Biden previously expressed regret for the bill, calling it “a big mistake.”