Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build, however, it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.
During his ABC “town hall” last night, responding to a question from moderator George Stephanopoulos, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden agreed that it was a “mistake” to “support” the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. At the same time, he defended parts of the law, including the Violence Against Women Act, funding to support “community policing” by hiring more officers, and the now-expired federal ban on “assault weapons.” He also implied that the real problem was not so much the law itself but the way that states responded to it. “The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally,” he said.
Both the question and the answer were highly misleading. First, Biden did not merely “support” the 1994 law; he wrote the damned thing, which he has proudly called “the 1994 Biden Crime Bill.” Second, as much as Biden might like to disavow the law’s penalty enhancements now that public opinion on criminal justice has shifted, he was proud of them at the time. Third, the 1994 crime bill is just one piece of legislation in Biden’s long history of supporting mindlessly punitive responses to drugs and crime.
Biden is trying to gloss over a major theme of his political career. “Every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress—every minor crime bill—has had the name of the Democratic senator from Delaware, Joe Biden,” he bragged in 1993. Now he wants us to believe his agenda was limited to domestic violence, community policing, and gun control.
“Things have changed drastically” since 1994, Biden said last night, noting that “the Black Caucus voted” for the crime bill, and “every black mayor supported it.” In other words, now that black politicians and Democrats generally have rejected the idea that criminal penalties can never be too severe, Biden has shifted with the winds of opinion. But as Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) noted during a Democratic presidential debate last year, that does not mean we should forget Biden’s leading role in the disastrous war on drugs and the draconian criminal justice policies that put more and more people in cages for longer and longer periods of time.