Joe Biden

Rather Than Running for President, Maybe Joe Biden Should Just Launch an Apology Tour

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the former vice president acknowledges regrets about his role in the drug war and mass incarcerations.


Joe Biden
Niall Carson/ZUMA Press/Newscom

At a speech in Washington, D.C. observing Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday yesterday, former Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged the devastating consequences of his role pushing the drug war into harsher and harsher sentencing when he was a senator.

Most particularly, Biden said he regretted championing legislation in 1994 that ultimately led to the mass incarceration crisis that we're still trying to unwind. The Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 ordered more severe mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine than powder cocaine under the panic-driven—but ultimately untrue—belief that crack was somehow different and nastier.

"It was a big mistake that was made," he said Monday. "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."

During President Barack Obama's first term, those regulations were fixed under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. The bill reduced the federal sentences for crack cocaine crimes so that there was less disparity between those connected to powder cocaine.

But changes in sentencing for federal crimes are often not retroactive. Obama did use pardons toward the end of his presidency to extend some mercy to many federal prisoners serving drug sentences. It took the FIRST STEP Act, passed just before Christmas last year, to make it so that the remaining federal prisoners currently serving time for crack sentences could have them reduced.

Biden is currently mulling over a presidential run, along with every single other Democratic politician you might have heard of. And while one who just formally announced on Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, also has a background of harsh approaches to criminal justice, probably no potential candidate on the left side of the aisle can match the sheer amount of legislation in which Biden has played a role. He's even partly to blame for the expansive authority of the Department of Justice to use civil asset forfeiture to take people's property and keep it for themselves or distribute it to local law enforcement agencies without ever actually having to convict these people of crimes.

Biden should have more than a few regrets. But at least he has finally gotten around to acknowledging the harms his policies have had on poor families and minorities. The same apparently cannot be said of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was at this same event as Biden and is reportedly considering a presidential run himself.

The New York Times notes that Bloomberg declined to talk about his support for stop-and-frisk searches that police used to, without any sort of probable cause, detain and search citizens, particularly young black and Latino males. A judge declared it unconstitutional and his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, declined to defend it.

And amazingly, given the current trajectory of political action, Bloomberg is still against marijuana legalization, demanding that the government do more research first (even though it has been the federal criminalization of marijuana that has been standing in the way of research for decades).

If there's ever a sentence that explains why we've called Bloomberg one of Reason's "45 Enemies of Freedom", as well as 2009's "Nanny of the Year," it's this quote from a speech at the University of Toronto in Canada a week ago explaining his continued opposition to marijuana legalization: "This mad, passionate rush to let everybody do things without any research just isn't something we would do in any other way."

This "rush"? America has been locking people up for marijuana use for decades. In order to actually change the laws, it has taken years and years of activism and growing evidence that whatever harms marijuana might cause in long-term consumption is nowhere near the harms caused by incarcerating people for smoking.

If Harris' background as attorney general can jeopardize her presidential chances, it's fascinating that Biden and Bloomberg think they could ever survive public scrutiny of their records.

This post has been updated to correct the effects of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

NEXT: CBS Won't Air Medical Marijuana Ad During the Super Bowl

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    1. For a guy who writes endless about criminal justice reform, you’d think he’d be on the side of innocent until proven guilty in this case too. And he’s getting reamed in the replies to that tweet.

    2. For a guy interested in criminal justice reform, you’d think he would be better about such things. Luckily, he’s getting reamed in the replies to that tweet.

      1. The replies actually restored my faith in humanity. For a minute or two.

    3. Because you should indict the entire faculty, student body and everyone involved with a school based one thing shouted out by one person who may or may not be a student there.

    4. Fucking Hell that is prime stupid

  1. “Maybe that cracker pedophile should repent before I slap irons on his limp wrists, Amen!” — Commander Avraham Amnon, Hebrew Israelite of the East.

  2. Still holding out for a Democratic candidate who isn’t total garbage…

    1. You rarely treasure in a dumpster.

    2. No such thing.

      1. Apparently Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, isn’t quite as bad as the rest. And he’s considering a run.

    3. Still holding out for a Democratic candidate who isn’t total garbage…


      1. Please Rand, please.

  3. Still holding out for a Democratic candidate who isn’t total garbage…

  4. Wow, squirrels are terrible today.

    1. Still waiting for my post to appear; it can take several minutes today.

    2. It’s those pop-up ads that Reason gets a boner over.

      I appreciate the ED ads over the rotten toenail ones but I think the online sales staff has went over to the Mr. Haney-style of cheezy salesmen.

  5. Today’s Yahoo click bait: “Joe Biden: White America still has to admit there’s still a systematic racism [sic]”

    Translation: Persons of color, if you do not vote strait Democratic ticket the world as we know it will end, or really get worse

    1. Please accept that I feel guilt for having the same melanin levels as those deplorable people who do not feel as guilty as I do.

  6. If Biden’s ONLY real positive thing is his experience and he claims he was wrong on virtually ALL issues — why is he electable?

      1. Missing the chinchilla cage, huh.

        1. How about the mistake of prostituting oneself at an “MLK breakfast?”

          Why do so many white people kneel at the alter of a plagiarizing, womanizing, socialist who abhorred free minds and free markets?

          God damn each and every municipality that has a Martin Luther King Boulevard in its jurisdiction.

  7. To be fair, back in the early stages of the “crack epidemic” it was racist *not* to want harsh penalties for crack. It showed you were indifferent to a plague which was afflicting the black community.

    Biden was simply following the conventional retardation – I mean conventional wisdom.

    1. Or he can just play the Felonious von Pantsuit routine: Baby I’ve Evolved

    2. “”We’re going to fight drugs and crime until the drug dealer’s teeth rattle,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson insisted in the 1970s. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who represented Harlem for decades, enthusiastically took up the mantle of a drug warrior during the crack epidemic in the 1980s….

      “Bracketing this history are Forman’s own experiences as a public defender in Washington, D.C., where he witnessed black judges and prosecutors carry out the thousands of small decisions that helped build mass incarceration. He opens with the story of a local judge who reprimands a teenage defendant with what Forman describes as “the Martin Luther King speech”?a stern lecture on how one’s failings are an insult to the civil-rights struggle?before handing the young man an excessive prison sentence. “I grew to hate the Martin Luther King speech,” Forman writes.”

      1. Biden, “I know I helped destroy thousands of lives but Top Negroes were demanding that we lock up the other negroes. Here in DC we call that constituent service.”

    3. But saying that is an admission it was not a racist conspiracy against blacks to try and remove the drug criminals from their communities. It was merely an error.

      1. At least the bad guys in 1984 thought they had to destroy inconvenient old news stories – today the narrative-framers simply pretend that old well-documented stories never happened, and close their ears when anyone reads the stories back to them.

        1. Progressivism has no intellectual history.


    Please do it!

    I want Joe Biden to explain to a presidential field of women that they are are tokens, since people like HIM run the Democratic Party. White men and women run the Democratic Party but Trump is the racist.

    1. Hammer and sickles all around. Uncle Joe! Uncle Joe!


      Please do it!

      Careful, that’s what they said about Donald Trump.

      1. Not exactly but I see where you are going with it.

        Biden has a government track record and it ain’t even close to good. Joe has skeletons in his closet that would scare shock a paleontologist.

  9. And let’s not forget how Uncle Joe has trouble keeping his hands to himself .

    1. Oh, yea, he’s a real perv. But he’s a protected class perv.

  10. Joe Biden is running against himself.

    Joe is against the white privilege which Joe has so Joe must win in order to defeat the white privilege.

    Biden 2020 !!! A vote against white privilege !!!

  11. ‘”It was a big mistake that was made,” he said Monday.’

    Oh, he did?

    Is that how gracious we are now?

    Doesn’t he mean “I’m a ginormous racist!”?

  12. Notice how many people are jumping in the ring since Hillary hasn’t made an announcement?

    I suspect that the only reason that Sanders ran in the primary the last time is that he was na?ve about how much the DNC was really a pro Hillary camp.

    I would love to see Hillary go for 2020 and see how many people dropout.

  13. America has the largest incarceration rate in the world.
    American has spent over a trillion dollars on the war on drugs and has failed miserably.
    So why should Biden apologize?

  14. It was a big mistake that was made…

    I hope he tries for a whole campaign in passive voice.

    1. I wonder how Jeff Davis would have been received if he said “a big mistake that was made” and tried to run for President of the U.S. vs. Grant in 1868?

  15. Excellent article and very insightful to lamenting past policy mistakes and not having the hindsight of such Draconian legislation and unintended consequences-all the reason why many have walked away from our failed two party system. The overriding moral of the story is much as St. Ronnie used to say, “Trust but verify.” I would rather use, in our current mood of many feeling left out and forgotten, the term: “Caveat Emptor.” In other words, with our current hyper partisans and just lack of civility, respect and lack of principles on the Hill-one must now be more than vigilant and not be complacent with any claiming to be of a specific tribe (political label) and the twisted talk show media spewing out toxic rhetoric of hate and bigotry-headed by a party that has lost its soul and with its leadership that has lost their collective spines.

  16. “I don’t like Joe Biden.”
    – Deconstructed Potato, 2008

    “I still don’t like Joe Biden, in fact I dislike him more acutely now.”
    – Deconstructed Potato, 2019

    1. Consistency is an admirable trait.

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