By Emily Martin
Opposition to “tough on crime” policies, supporting an end to mass incarceration, and declaring the war on drugs should cease, all align with the Democratic Party’s views on criminal justice issues. However, Joe Biden has not only taken opposite stances on these issues, specifically the war on drugs, he authored pieces of their enactment.
The crack epidemic and crime wave during the 1980s and 1990s was met with responses from both sides of the aisle. Republicans and Democrats alike, competed to appear “tough on crime” through enactment of policies resulting in justice deficiency. Republicans were led by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Democrats had a major leader in these efforts by the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden.
Interestingly, it was Biden who pushed the plan that was put out by Bush to go further. In July of 1991, at the debate over an anti-crime bill, Biden argued that his plan “was much tougher than the president’s” and “provides for more penalties for death for more offenses than the [president’s] bill.” In The First Civil Right: How Liberals Build Prison America, Naomi Murakawa details how a Republican senator criticized the Democratic bill for “strengthen[ing] criminals’ rights.” At the time, Biden countered this statement saying, “we do everything but hang people for jaywalking.” Indeed, much of Biden’s tough on crime policies totally contradict the Democratic Party’s views today. Indeed, large parts of the Democratic Party are committed to undoing the crime policies Biden wrote. Let us take a look at his highlights and contributions regarding criminal justice within his defined Senate career:
1986: Biden co-sponsored and partially wrote the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs. This is the birthplace of the infamous crack-versus-cocaine sentencing disparity.
1988: Biden played an important role in the crafting of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which among other things, established the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
1994: Biden partly wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act imposing tougher sentences and increasing the funding for prisons.
So, Biden helped write and pass two of the most important federal legislative measures, regarding the federal war on drugs.
It is important to note that while this is dated information; Biden led the movement in this space. Other politicians claim that they never supported mass incarceration or were just following the politics of the time. Biden staunchly pursued mass incarceration and the war on drugs.
Additionally, we should note that Biden has attempted to repent for these actions. The apology’s success? It’s up to the imagination of the reader. In January of 2019, he gave an apology saying “it was a big mistake when it was made. We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack, you never go back; it was somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different.” In July of 2019, he released a criminal justice reform plan that, according to Biden’s campaign, was to decrease incarceration and fix “the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system.” And his office says that he was never on board with some of the stricter measures in previous laws, such as a 1993 symposium from the US Sentencing Commission. But, as recently as 2008, his campaign website labeled the 1994 law the “Biden Crime Law.” In 2016, CNBC asked Joe Biden if he was ashamed of his 1994 law. Biden replied with, “Not at all. As a matter of fact, I drafted the bill, if you remember.” While he did acknowledge there were parts of the law that he would change, he declared that “by and large what it really did, it restored American cities.”
Biden has a straightforward record. Sure, he occasionally spoke out against some tough measures. But, when we take it wholly, Biden was insistent and enthusiastic about making a more punitive criminal justice system. Furthermore, in the theoretical case that crime rises again, there could be pressure on lawmakers to revert back to “tough on crime” policies. Thanks to Biden, it would be easier for them.