17-12-20 07:42:00, Presidential candidates former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during the Democratic presidential debate at Tyler Perry Studios on Wednesday, November 20, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A long-standing and vehement criticism of Joe Biden is that legislation he championed as a Senator in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly his crime bill of 1994, contributed to the mass incarceration of Americans generally and African-Americans specifically.
Among the many on the left and libertarian right who have voiced this criticism (along with President Trump) is then-Senator Kamala Harris, who said during the 2020 Democratic primary race that Biden’s “crime bill — that 1994 crime bill — it did contribute to mass incarceration in our country.” When Hillary Clinton was running for President in 2015, Bill Clinton, who as president signed Biden’s bill into law, told the NAACP: “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Biden during a 2019 presidential debate: “There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.” Booker then said in an interview with The Huffington Post that that Biden’s “crime bill was shameful, what it did to black and brown communities like mine [and] low-income communities from Appalachia to rural Iowa,” also denouncing it for “overwhelmingly putting people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses that members of Congress and the Senate admit to breaking now.”
In 2016, author and scholar Michele Alexander argued that Hillary did not deserve the votes of black people due to her and her husband’s support for numerous bills, including Biden’s 1994 crime bill, that led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans. Harvard’s Cornel West said in 2019: “When [Biden] says [the 1994 crime bill] didn’t contribute to mass incarceration, I tell him he has to get off his symbolic crack pipe.”
While that debate over the damage done by Biden’s crime bill has long raged in Democratic Party politics and the criminal justice reform movement,