The Democratic favorite has a long history of supporting the War on Drugs and other ineffective tough-on-crime policies, Liam Glen writes on Biden’s criminal justice record.
Former Vice President Joe Biden currently leads in the polls for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. After months of looming on the sidelines of race, he is expected to finally announce his candidacy this week.
Despite his lead, Biden is plagued by controversy. His lack of respect for personal boundaries has received the most coverage so far. Progressive Democrats also object to his moderate policy positions. In response, Biden seems to be embracing the image of an anti-populist pragmatist, a fearless maverick who will buck ideology for the good of the nation.
In the abstract, this sounds admirable. But a closer look at Biden’s history shows that he has fallen far short of being an non ideological pragmatist. In particular, his record on criminal justice reveals an insistence on ineffective policy without regard for facts or evidence.
As Senator from Delaware from 1973 to 2009, Biden was a leading advocate of the War on Drugs. His stances at the time are best summed up in a 1991 speech on the Senate floor resurfaced by journalist Zaid Jilani.
In the one-minute clip, Biden cites his work with arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond on criminal justice bills. He brags about expanding use of the death penalty, changing civil forfeiture laws to allow police to confiscate property without due process, and setting mandatory minimums that mandate harsh sentences for guilty defendants regardless of the judge’s input.
His other notable actions include cosponsoring the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set far harsher penalties for crack (stereotypically used by poor African-Americans) than powder cocaine (stereotypically used by upper-class whites). He pushed for the creation of the drug czar in the 1980s, and later accused the first holder of the office, the ultraconservative William Bennett, of “not being tough enough.”
This culminated when Biden authored a bill that would become the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The sweeping piece of legislation greatly increased penalties for various crimes. For this reason, the Brennan Center for Justice blames it for fueling the modern age of mass incarceration.
Of course, it is not always fair to judge politicians for actions taken decades ago. The tough-on-crime craze of the late twentieth century transcended party and ideology. In 1988, left-wing civil rights leader Jesse Jackson referred to himself as “the general in this war to fight drugs.” The 1994 Crime Bill passed with overwhelming liberal support, including a vote from Bernie Sanders.
For his part, Biden has slowly distanced himself from this part of his past. In 2007, he introduced a bill to undo the disparity between crack and powder cocaine. As vice president, he showed a mixture of pride and contrition in his legacy. He admitted that he was wrong about harsh prison sentences for drug offenses but remained defensive about other legislation.
Despite bipartisan support for legalization, Biden has also remained steadfast in his opposition to cannabis, which he justifies under the controversial belief that it is a “gateway drug.”
The Joe Biden of the 2020s will surely have a more nuanced take on criminal justice than the Joe Biden of the 1980s. But, in the age of wokeness, he still falls behind the rest of the pack.
Biden was not simply a fellow traveler of the War on Drugs, but one of its architects. It is because of him and his colleagues that America suffers the world’s highest incarceration rate while still having lackluster public safety. As someone who championed policies that put so many lower-class and minority youths behind bars for nonviolent offenses, it also does not help his image that he has a daughter and son who were caught for narcotics use but escaped prosecution.
As a society, we are slowly realizing that solving crime solely by throwing people in cells for an arbitrary number of years is the social policy equivalent of curing migraines through trepanation. Biden is a latecomer to the epiphany that incarceration is a poor remedy for drug addiction. Meanwhile, he has been cautious to show support for wider rehabilitation and restoration-based reforms. Even as criminal justice reform becomes a mainstream priority, one cannot expect that a Biden White House will place it high on the agenda.