Both candidates joined other 2020 hopefuls on Wednesday at the NAACP National Convention in Detroit, where Booker hit at Biden’s record on criminal justice reform.
“Now he’s unrolled this, unveiled his crime bill,” Booker said. “For a guy who helped to be an architect of mass incarceration, this is an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country.”
The comment came a day after Biden announced his plan to decriminalize medical marijuana, get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, abolish the death penalty, end private prisons and cash bail, and discourage the incarceration of children. His plan also sets a goal of making sure all formerly incarcerated people have housing after they’re released.
The proposal is a big change from the 1994 crime bill that had been considered one of Biden’s biggest achievements as a senator. Today, Democrats and criminal justice experts closely associate the bill with the country’s mass incarceration of African Americans and Latinos.
In a statement Tuesday, Booker said that Biden “had more than 40 years to get this right.”
“The 1994 crime bill accelerated mass incarceration and inflicted immeasurable harm on Black, Brown, and low-income communities,” Booker said in the statement. He had called the bill “shameful” in a HuffPost interview earlier this year. “While it’s encouraging to see Vice President Biden finally come around to supporting many of the ideas I and others have proposed, his plan falls short of the transformative change our broken criminal justice system needs.”
Booker has made criminal justice reform an integral part of his 2020 presidential bid. In addition to a plan that would grant clemency and early release to about 17,000 federal prisoners “serving unjust and excessive sentences,” the senator recently introduced a bill to give federally incarcerated people who have served more than 10 years of their time a chance at having their sentences reduced or being released. He also authored the First Step Act, which was signed into law last December and aims to cut the federal prison population by allowing incarcerated people a chance to earn more days off for good behavior.
Biden’s team hit back at Booker on Wednesday, saying that the senator has been a leader in criminal justice reform but that “the absurdity of this attack is obvious.”
“Almost 90% of all people incarcerated in America are in state and local prisons and jails for violating state laws ― laws that Joe Biden, of course, did not write,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said in a statement.
Biden also told reporters that the Newark Police Department “was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men,” while Booker was the mayor and that Booker “objected to federal interference.”
Booker’s campaign manager responded to Biden’s comments on Twitter, saying that Biden’s boast that he’d been working on criminal justice reform “for decades” is exactly the problem.
The jabs build on the tension Biden and Booker have already established between them after the two sparred on Biden’s comments last month about working with segregationist lawmakers when he was a senator. The remarks were brought up in the first Democratic presidential debate, to which Biden responded defensively.
Soon after, Booker criticized Biden’s speech in Chicago when the former vice president called on the country to “recognize that the kid wearing a hoodie may very well be the next poet laureate and not a gangbanger.” The New Jersey senator said the problem wasn’t a hoodie but rather “a culture that sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie in the first place.”
Booker told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in June that Biden’s words are “causing a lot of frustration and even pain” across the country.
“This is a bad culture when you can’t admit mistakes, when you can’t speak to your vulnerabilities and your imperfections,” Booker said on the show.
The rising tension sets the stage for next week, when they will be facing off for the first time during the second Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CNN. That debate will be split into two nights, as was the first round among 20 candidates last month.
Biden will also face Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) on Wednesday, the second debate night. He sparred with Harris in the last debate over his past comments on busing.