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- Former Vice President Joe Biden on Monday apologized for his past stances on criminal justice.
- Biden is considering running for president in 2020, and his hardline positions on crime as a senator could come back to haunt him.
- “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried,” Biden said in remarks commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
As former Vice President Joe Biden mulls a potential 2020 presidential run, he’s apologizing for his past stances on criminal-justice issues.
In a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Washington, the former vice president acknowledged the detrimental impact of his approach to crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“You know I’ve been in this fight for a long time. It goes not just to voting rights. It goes to the criminal justice system,” Biden said at the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”
Biden helped write an infamous 1994 crime bill – the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That bill is widely pointed to as one of the driving factors of mass incarceration in the US, as well as the disproportionate number of people of color who’ve ended up behind bars for drug-related crimes.
Some experts contend the impact of the bill, which was signed into the law by former President Bill Clinton, is overblown. But Biden’s involvement on criminal justice issues goes well beyond the bill, which already represents an easy point of attack if he runs for president.
Without specifically naming the 1994 bill on Monday, Biden said the decisions that were made in that era “trapped an entire generation.”
“It was a big mistake when it was made,” Biden said.
In an apparent reference to sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, he added, “We were told by the experts that ‘crack, you never go back,’ that the two were somehow fundamentally different. It’s not. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
The vice president went on to say that “white America” needs to do more to address and recognize systemic racism.
“There’s something we have to admit – not you – we, white America, has to admit, there’s still a systematic racism and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us,” Biden said.
Biden was less conciliatory about the 1994 crime bill in his 2017 memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” in which the former vice president contended the legislation helped put 100,000 police officers out on the streets and drove down escalating rates of violent crime across the country.
Similarly, in a 2016 interview with CNBC, Biden said he was “not at all” ashamed of his role in supporting the bill and said it “restored American cities.”
“In fact, I drafted the bill,” Biden said at the time. “And by the way, we talk about this mostly in terms of Black Lives Matter. Black lives really do matter, but the problem is institutionalized racism in America.”
“There are things I would change,” he added on the 1994 bill. “But, by and large, what it really did: It restored American cities.”
Despite his efforts and involvement in criminal justice reform with the Obama administration, Biden’s past statements on this bill and his overall record on criminal justice could haunt him if he ends up running in 2020.
As a senator, Biden spearheaded the Democratic Party’s war on crime and drugs. He drafted or co-sponsored legislation that created the federal “drug czar,” mandatory minimum sentencing for marijuana, and the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine.
In a 2015 interview with Time, Biden said, “I am not only the guy who did the crime bill and the drug czar, but I’m also the guy who spent years when I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of [the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] trying to change drug policy relative to cocaine, for example, crack and powder.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s husband’s record on crime as president was damaging to her 2016 campaign for president, despite efforts to apologize. Biden, if he runs, is poised to face just as much criticism if not more so on this issue.