During last week’s presidential debate, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden frequently shifted from answering direct questions posed by moderator Kristen Welker to criticizing their opponent. Although a common tactic in political confrontations, Trump’s race to pivot on the matter of race not only revealed his own lack of empathy for Black Americans, but rehashed an overused allegation that Biden is to blame for mass incarceration, particularly of Black people.
Welker: "I would like you to speak directly to these (Black) families. Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?"
Trump: "Yes, I do. And again, he's (Biden) been in government 47 years. He never did a thing, except in 1994, when he did such harm to the Black community. And they were called … and he called them super predators. And he said that, he said it, super predators. And they can never live that down. 1994, your crime bill, the super predators."
Biden's role with the 1994 crime bill
It is true that Biden has been in public service for nearly five decades, as the U.S. senator from Delaware from 1973 until 2009 followed by eight years as vice president. At no time, however, did he have ultimate authority to block legislation or sign executive orders like Trump has done as occupant of the Oval Office.
Specifically, in terms of the 1994 crime bill, Biden was but one of 61 senators who supported the legislation.
Chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, Biden did indeed have a major hand in guiding the crime bill through Congress and onto President Bill Clinton’s desk for his signature. As in the sausage-making metaphor often applied to lawmaking, the chairman had to strike many compromises for this massive piece of legislation to get a sufficient support from members of Congress, with their widely divergent opinions of the causes and solutions to crime.
According to the 1994 Congressional Quarterly Almanac, “The struggle over the bill, which lasted most of the session, was a fierce match between conservatives — who fought for stiffer punishment for criminals and ridiculed prevention programs as pork — and liberals — who condemned what they said was a failed policy of overzealous incarceration, and pushed instead for crime prevention programs.”
If Biden had had his way, the crime bill would have been far more oriented toward prevention and far less toward punishment. As early as 1990, with the nation’s homicide rate reaching close to historic levels, Biden talked of the three Ds — deadly weapons, drugs and demographics. Reflecting Biden’s influence, the final version of the crime bill included over $7 billion for a basket of prevention programs. However, once Republicans seized control of Congress following the 1994 midterm elections, it became more like a trash basket of prevention.
The Republican “Contract with America” shifted crime control priorities — and how the funds were appropriated — away from early prevention over to harsh punishment. In 1995, the Republicans slashed drug treatment and other prevention initiatives in favor of prison financing and incentivizing states to enact tougher sentencing laws. It had become a political liability to advocate for prevention.
Biden has acknowledged his mistake
It was also in 1995 that political scientist John DiIulio coined the rather inappropriate term “super predator.” Not only was it a characterization never used by Biden (but was used in 1996 by the Republican standard-bearer Bob Dole and by then-first lady Hillary Clinton), the term also could not logically have encouraged passage of the crime bill in 1994.
For the most part, it is unfair to judge actions of long ago using a present-day lens. Crime rates in the early 1990s were soaring, with the violent crime rate in the four years leading up to the passage of the crime bill about twice as high as it is today. Amidst the surge, the public was scared, responding to daily stories of crime in the streets that could often seem as grim as current news reports on the coronavirus.
Biden has admitted that certain elements of the crime bill were ill advised, willingly accepting a share of responsibility for mass incarceration traced to actions from decades ago. Taking responsibility and admitting a mistake is admirable — something not seen from President Trump for his actions (or rather inactions) of months ago that are at least in part responsible for mass infections.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden and the 1994 crime bill: He had to compromise with conservatives