Joe Biden is proposing to reverse several key provisions of the 1994 crime bill he helped write in an acknowledgment that his tough-on-crime positions of the past are at odds with the views of the modern Democratic Party.
The former vice president is calling for an end to the disparity that placed stricter sentencing terms on offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine as well as an end to the federal death penalty, which the legislation authorized as a potential punishment for an increasing number of crimes.
Biden is the early Democratic front-runner in no small part because of support from black voters who are crucial to winning the party’s presidential nomination. But his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill could become a vulnerability. Several of his rivals have blamed the crime bill for the mass incarceration of racial minorities over the past two decades.
He was expected to talk about his criminal justice reform proposal at a speech Tuesday in New Orleans, but he didn’t do so. He is scheduled to be in Detroit on Wednesday for the NAACP national convention.
Biden’s moves could be an attempt to blunt fellow White House contenders Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who have escalated their critiques of the former vice president’s handling of race in recent weeks. All three candidates will share a stage at next week’s presidential debate.
Cedric Richmond, Biden’s campaign chairman, called the plan “the most forward-leaning criminal justice policy proposed.” Richmond, a Louisiana representative and former public defender, praised it for building on Virginia Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott’s SAFE Justice Act, which would reserve prison space for violent offenders and offer a wider range of non-prison sentencing alternatives. Scott’s bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
By building on Scott’s bill, Biden, who represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for decades, is moving significantly to the left but not quite as far as endorsing the type of sweeping overhaul championed by Booker. Booker unveiled a proposal this year that would go beyond the criminal justice measure that President Donald Trump signed into law last year by slashing mandatory minimum sentences.
And Biden’s shift on the death penalty also puts him in line with every other Democratic presidential candidate except for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. It’s a stark change of Biden’s previous approach to the issue: Touting the toughness of the crime bill in 1992, the then-Senate Judiciary Committee chairman joked that it would do “everything but hang people for jaywalking.”
Biden’s plan would seek to create a $20 billion grant program to encourage states to reduce incarceration by increasing spending on child abuse prevention, education and literacy, as long as states eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes.
He also would expand the Justice Department’s role in rooting out institutional misconduct by police departments and prosecutors and would establish an independent task force to study prosecutorial discretion in an attempt to head off racial and ethnic discrimination.
The plan also includes spending $1 billion annually on changes in the juvenile justice system and identifies as a goal that all former inmates have access to housing when they leave prison.
Biden also plans to seek a renewed ban on assault weapons, an element of the 1994 crime bill he continues to promote, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Trump, a Republican, tweeted in May while championing his own criminal justice measure that “anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected. In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you.”
Since the last debate, Biden has focused his campaign speeches on his stint as vice president and has aggressively proposed policies in recent weeks that build on gains in President Barack Obama’s administration, including criminal justice.
Booker has hinted that he would renew his criticisms of Biden’s lead role on the 1994 crime bill when the two candidates share the stage during the second set of Democratic presidential debates in Detroit next week. He offered a preview of that criticism on Tuesday, pushing back at Biden’s criminal justice plan in a tweet that didn’t name the former vice president: “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years,” Booker wrote.
Harris, too, has chastised Biden’s role in the 1994 bill. But Harris herself has been criticized by criminal justice reform advocates as being too tough on the accused during her tenures as the San Francisco district attorney and as California’s attorney general before she was elected senator.
Harris has answered those criticisms by saying she supports major changes to federal criminal justice. She partnered with a senior House Democrat on Tuesday to propose legislation that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge records of federal marijuana offenses, steps that Biden aligns with in his new plan — although Harris and Booker have both gone further than Biden in their support of full marijuana legalization.
Schor reported from Washington.