U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden admitted Thursday it was “a mistake” to support a sweeping crime bill as a senator in the 1990s that’s been blamed for high incarceration rates among Black Americans.
Asked by a voter about the 1994 bill at an ABC News town hall event, Biden was then asked by host George Stephanopoulos if it was a mistake to support it, to which Biden responded, “Yes it was.”
Biden said the most damaging effects of the bill came through decisions made by individual states after its passage, referring to federal funding states were granted if they toughened their sentencing laws.
He also said that the bill was indicative of its time, noting that members of the Congressional Black Caucus supported it. Yet he admitted that the conversation surrounding racial justice in America has made many of its ideas antiquated.
“Things have changed drastically,” he said.
The bill, which Biden helped write and shepherd through Congress as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was a senator for Delaware, established mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for minor crimes, including drug possession.
That part of the bill, which applied to marijuana and crack cocaine, led to a dramatic increase of incarceration of Americans in general — and Black men in particular — through the 1990s and early 2000s.
It also provided funding for states to build more prisons to handle the overflow, and backed grant programs that effectively encouraged police to carry out more drug-related arrests.
At the same time, the bill included provisions like the Violence Against Women Act, which Biden led and still has widespread support today.
Asked about another part of the bill — funding for 100,000 new police officers — and if he still believes that “more cops clearly means less crime”, Biden said he did. He also said he opposed growing calls to defund the police, although the ideas he expressed about police reform aligned with many of the ideas of the defund movement.
Biden said he supports more officers in communities “if, in fact, they’re involved in community policing and not jump squads.” He claimed fewer arrests were made during the increase of community policing in the 1990s, a fact that is disputed by federal statistics when it comes to drug possession or use arrests.
Asked how he would address some of the inequalities created by the bill if elected president, Biden said he will establish a “national study group” that will include police, social workers, and members of the Black and Hispanic communities.
The group will “sit down in the White House and over the next year, come up with significant reforms that need to take place within communities,” he said.
“You have to bring them together.”
President Donald Trump and Republicans have sided with law enforcement in the wake of widespread protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people by police earlier this year.
Trump has yet to invite Black community leaders to the White House to discuss police reform, choosing instead to hold roundtables with police officers and prosecutors while sending a “law and order” message. Several police unions have backed Trump’s re-election bid as a result.
Thursday’s town hall — held at the same time as Trump’s own town hall with voters on NBC News after a scheduled town hall debate between the two was cancelled — featured other moments of Biden being asked how he would address systemic racism and help the Black community.
Asked by a young Black man about why he should support Biden and about the prospect of many people like him not voting at all in November, Biden gave a winding explanation that touched on making the criminal justice system “fair” and “more decent.”
He said Black Americans need to be given tools to help generate wealth, including increased loans for Black-owned businesses and homeowners.
The former vice-president said America also needs to increase its funding for schools with lower-income families and suggesting adding more school psychologists in schools. He also proposed adding $70 billion to historically Black colleges and universities.
At the end of his five-minute answer, he offered to provide “a lot more” information to the young Black man who asked the question.
When asked by another voter how he would urge Trump “toward the ideals of a more perfect union” and address systemic racism, Biden responded: “To be very honest with you, I think that’s very hard.”
— With files from the Associated Press