In advance of a July 31 Democratic presidential candidate debate in which he might face a direct challenge about his long Senate record on crime policy, former Vice-President Joe Biden has released a criminal-justice-reform proposal that clearly aims at countering his reputation as one of the chief architects of mass incarceration in this country. As the New York Times reports, it reverses key trends in crime policy that were exemplified by a 1994 omnibus crime bill that for a long time was Biden’s proud signature legislation:
In proposals that would aim to reverse the legacies of the 1994 crime bill, Mr. Biden called for eliminating discrepancies in sentencing between powder and crack cocaine and for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, repeating and building on points he has made on the campaign trail. He also called for an end to cash bail.
And the plan supports eliminating the death penalty through legislation at the federal level and incentives at the state level, a position that is a sharp departure from the position Mr. Biden vocally embraced in the 1990s and throughout his Senate career.
The proposal calls for empowering the Justice Department to “root out unconstitutional or unlawful policing” and for an independent task force focused on prosecutorial discretion.
Recognizing that most crime policies are set at the state and local levels, Biden would establish a new $20 billion grant program to encourage reform — including the abolition of mandatory minimums and an emphasis on crime prevention rather than incarceration — beyond the federal government’s reach.
In what appears to be an effort to embrace a full agenda of progressive crime initiatives, Biden is also endorsing decriminalization of cannabis, a ban on federally funded private prisons, new money for juvenile-justice reform, and “a provision to ensure that people who are imprisoned are treated humanely and that women in custody are provided health-care protections.”
While the repudiation of mandatory-minimum sentences and decriminalization of minor drug offenses are the most significant provisions in Biden’s proposal (echoing most of his 2020 Democratic rivals), the most symbolically powerful probably involves the death penalty, as the Washington Post observes:
For Biden, a longtime advocate of capital punishment, the decision to oppose the death penalty represents a particularly notable change. The former senator from Delaware gave a speech in 1992 in which he boasted that a crime bill he helped draft would provide “53 death penalty offenses.”
When critics said the legislation was too soft, he added sarcastically, “Weak as can be, you know? We do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill.”
It is unclear whether the new proposal provides sufficient cover for the material with which Biden’s Democratic rivals (and for that matter, Donald J. Trump, the law-and-order president who disingenuously repeats progressives criticisms of Biden’s crime record) have undoubtedly stuffed their oppo research files. Kamala Harris, Biden’s tormenter in the first round of debates, has her own problems with crime policy as a former prosecutor; she may still be tempted to distinguish herself from Biden. Cory Booker is already suggesting that Biden cannot unring this particular bell:
But among the Democratic rank and file, and particularly the African-American voters on whom Biden is heavily dependent for his presidential prospects, Biden may be pushing on an unlocked door in seeking retroactive forgiveness for his association with tough-on-crime policies. He’s already half-cleansed by his close association with Barack Obama. Perhaps identifying with the proposals of those seeking to undo his handiwork will be sufficient. We could get an idea of the impact even before next week’s debate, notes the Times:
The proposal comes before Mr. Biden is set to address two events this week focused on racial justice: a gathering of the N.A.A.C.P. in Detroit on Wednesday, and a conference of the National Urban League in Indianapolis on Thursday. On Tuesday, he will also tour a community-based center for underserved youth in New Orleans with his national campaign co-chair, Representative Cedric Richmond, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
If nothing else, Biden’s sharp change of direction on crime policy shows that Democrats are no longer fearful of looking “weak” on this issue, and aren’t inclined to tack to the right in this area in order to neutralize the issue and change the subject to more congenial economic topics. Whether or not the new course works out for Joe Biden in 2020, he’s burying the Democratic legacy of the 1994 crime bill along with leading his role in it.