SOMEWHERE ON US-218 BETWEEN MOUNT PLEASANT AND KEOKUK, Iowa ― New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, sharply criticized one of the signature legislative achievements of former Vice President Joe Biden, the contest’s front-runner, calling a decades-old crime law that Biden helped write and pass “awful” and “shameful” for its role in increasing mass incarceration.
In an interview with HuffPost while traveling on a campaign-rented RV between two stops in southeastern Iowa during Memorial Day weekend, Booker ― who has made criminal justice reform central to his White House bid ― said he disagreed with Biden’s assertion that the 1994 law didn’t significantly increase the U.S. jail population.
“I use this word sincerely. I love Joe Biden,” Booker began, before launching into a series of criticisms of the law: “The incentives they put in that bill for people to raise mandatory minimums, for building prisons and jails ― from the time I was in law school to the time I was mayor of the city of Newark, we were building a new prison or jail every 10 days in America while the rest of our infrastructure crumbled ― overwhelmingly putting people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses that members of Congress and the Senate admit to breaking now. That bill was awful.”
“We should all agree with the force of conviction: That bill was a mistake,” he concluded, hitting his hand against the table for emphasis. “Good people signed on to that bill. People make mistakes. But let’s hold them to that. That crime bill was shameful, what it did to black and brown communities like mine [and] low-income communities from Appalachia to rural Iowa. It was a bad bill.”
Biden, then the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the lead Senate sponsor of the legislation, which President Bill Clinton signed into law. The sprawling legislation contained multitudes of provisions, but experts today agree it was a factor in skyrocketing incarceration rates, especially for African-Americans and Latinos, primarily by incentivizing states to lock criminals up for longer periods of time and giving them billions of dollars to build new prisons. (It did not directly incentivize states to adopt stronger mandatory minimums.) Experts now believe the massive increase in incarceration had little to do with the decrease in crime rates since the 1990s.
The law also contained a ban on assault weapons and the initial version of the Violence Against Women Act.
Biden has downplayed the law’s impact on incarceration rates. “This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration, it did not generate mass incarceration,” Biden said earlier this month while campaigning in New Hampshire. He instead blamed states for enacting tougher mandatory minimum sentences.
Booker was an author of the recently passed First Step Act, which aims to cut the federal prison population and had bipartisan backing. President Donald Trump, who signed the First Step Act into law, has tried to attack Biden over the old crime law in recent days.
Anyone associated with the measure “will not have a chance of being elected. In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, & helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!”
(Trump’s credibility on criminal justice reform issue is mixed, at best. Critics have quickly noted how he enflamed public anger toward the Central Park Five ― a group of black and Latino teenagers who, it turned out, were falsely accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 1989. Even after DNA tests proved they were innocent and another man confessed to the crime, Trump refused to accept that they were not guilty.)
The controversial 1994 measure was the product of extensive negotiations with Republicans, and Biden didn’t support every aspect of the bill. “I think we’ve had all the mandatory minimums that we need,” he said at one point during the bill’s negotiations, adding that he didn’t think he could round up the political support for eliminating them.
And some provisions in the law ― including drug courts, which might have reduced incarceration for nonviolent offenders ― were essentially gutted by subsequent GOP-controlled Congresses.
Biden has apologized for one aspect of his criminal justice record, voting for an earlier law that introduced a wide sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.
Booker, when asked if Biden should apologize further, said it was up to the former vice president.
“You should ask him that question,” Booker said.