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Examining Joe Biden's Record On Race: 1994 Crime Bill Sponsorship


In Wilmington, Del., we met a long time friend of Joe Biden. Bebe Coker was sitting on a back porch. She's a civil rights activist who's known him almost 50 years.

What did you think about when he became Barack Obama's vice president?

BEBE COKER: Oh, he will kill me because I've never said this to him.

INSKEEP: She took a moment to think it over.

COKER: You have no idea. I've never known any white male that would take second place to a Black man. That sealed our friendship. He doesn't even know it because I've never said it to him.

INSKEEP: Joe Biden has talked up his partnership with President Obama throughout his campaign. It's a credential that earned him strong Black support. But his record on race has sometimes faced the judgment of history, which some Black voters recalled when we interviewed them in Pittsburgh.

Why not vote for Joe Biden?

LENNY MCALLISTER: His 1994 crime bill disproportionately impacted communities such as Homewood-Brushton where literally generations of fathers and mothers spent a disproportionate amount of time in jail.

INSKEEP: Lenny McAllister is not supporting Biden, but others who seem likely to support him recalled hearing about that crime bill during primary debates.


CORY BOOKER: We have a system right now that's broken. And if you want to compare records and frankly, I'm shocked that you do, I am happy to do that.

INSKEEP: Candidate Cory Booker challenged Biden in 2019.


BOOKER: You were bragging, calling it the Biden crime bill up till 2015.


INSKEEP: What's the story of that bill? Inimai Chettiar of Justice Action Network says it came in a period of soaring crime.

INIMAI CHETTIAR: So there was an attempt to increase sentences and prison time.

INSKEEP: In 1990, New York City alone suffered more than 2,000 murders. In Los Angeles that year, community leader Anita Moore (ph) spoke with NPR.


ANITA MOORE: We went to three funerals in a matter of a week's time. And you sit and you cry and you cry and you cry and you wonder, what can you do and why are these things happening?

INSKEEP: In that 1990 story headlined "Murders Being Accepted Casually Now," LA Sheriff Sherman Block discussed gang violence.


SHERMAN BLOCK: In some cases, I guess you can say it's recreational violence. So it's something to do on a Saturday night. Let's go out and and shoot somebody.

INSKEEP: By 1994, crime was dropping but still high. And Joe Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.


JOE BIDEN: So here we are. Police officers are outgunned. My wife, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, me and everyone else in America are literally changing their lifestyle.

INSKEEP: Biden assembled sweeping legislation, a collection of proposals with many authors, more complicated than it may seem today. It included an assault weapons ban and money for crime prevention. President Bill Clinton wanted extra money for police. Biden favored protections for women. But in the Senate at the time, Biden described pressure for a more severe response.


BIDEN: There is a mood here that if someone came to the floor and said, you know, we should barb wire the ankles of anyone who jaywalks, I suspect it would pass.

INSKEEP: Researcher Inimai Chettiar says lawmakers pushed to create new federal crimes and stricter penalties for existing crimes.

CHETTIAR: The second thing that the crime bill did, which was actually more harmful, was provide about $9 billion to states to build more prisons.

INSKEEP: Did this bill seem to make sense at the time?

CHETTIAR: I would say a majority of Americans, majority of politicians, thought this was the right direction.

INSKEEP: Afterward, the prison population, already high, kept growing. It peaked at 1.6 million people in 2008. But Biden argued that much of the legislation worked.

Did he call it the Biden crime bill?

CHETTIAR: He did, yes. He did call it the Biden crime bill.

INSKEEP: Did crime fall after the bill was passed?

CHETTIAR: Crime did fall. What we now know is that it was not due to increased incarceration. So that's a little bit of a counterintuitive point.

INSKEEP: Chettiar's advocacy group pushes to reduce the prison population. She says her research links the drop in crime to economic growth, demographic change and better policing. Imprisonment pushed people in the other direction.

CHETTIAR: Putting someone in prison who does not need to be there can oftentimes increase that person's likelihood of committing another crime upon release. We don't do a very good job at all of helping people get back on their feet.

INSKEEP: How disproportionately Black has that prison population been?

CHETTIAR: About 1 in 4 Black men can expect to spend some period of their life behind bars.

INSKEEP: Facing that reality, President Obama gave clemency to some offenders. In 2014, a federal commission cut drug sentences, and in 2013, bipartisan sentencing changes passed Congress. President Trump signed them, even though he was better known up to then for demanding the death penalty for five innocent Black suspects in New York. He attacked Biden in last month's presidential debate.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Crime bill, 1994, where you call them super predators, African Americans are super predators, and they've never forgotten it. They've never forgotten it, Joe.

INSKEEP: Today, the bill's defenders focus on the many provisions that didn't put more people in prison. And those defenders include some Black lawmakers. Congressman Jim Clyburn may be the single person most responsible for Biden's nomination. He endorsed Biden just ahead of the vital South Carolina primary.

How do you answer the concerns that many people raise about his support for that crime bill?

JIM CLYBURN: I tell people about my support for it. I voted for that crime bill.

INSKEEP: Clyburn recalls a particular provision. It authorized the Justice Department to investigate local police for a pattern or practice of discrimination. Years later, the government used that provision to find discrimination after a 2014 police shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Clyburn says the crime bill is not wholly responsible for imprisoning so many Black people.

CLYBURN: It's often that legislation will have unintended consequences. And the reason for that is that we allow prosecutors to make determinations as to who gets tried for a felony or who gets tried for a misdemeanor.

INSKEEP: I mean, you're telling me there's still bias, unconscious or conscious bias, in the system and that system may have been as responsive (ph).

CLYBURN: We all know it.

INSKEEP: Deeper awareness of that reality has encouraged different approaches to fighting crime. In 1994, as we heard, the crime bill gave money to states to build more prisons. In 2020, candidate Joe Biden's crime plan includes money to help states find alternatives to prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.