Joe Biden

In the Space of One Minute, Joe Biden Defends the Death Penalty for Drug Dealers, Asset Forfeiture, and Mandatory Minimums

This 1991 Senate floor speech shows Biden's central role in crafting disastrous crime policies.


Abaca Press/Douliery Olivier/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom

Right now most of the news about likely 2020 contender Joe Biden involves his history of being handsy with people at public events. Yet another, far more problematic element of his history has been popping up too: his record on criminal justice.

On Wednesday, the same day Biden put out a video statement responding to criticisms of his wandering hands, journalist Ziad Jilani tweeted a 1991 Senate floor speech made by the then-senator from Delaware.

Though the clip is only a minute long, Biden manages to brag about his role in some of the worst tough-on-crime policies around, including civil asset forfeiture, mandatory minimum sentencing, and an expanded federal death penalty.

"There is now a death penalty. If you are a major drug dealer, involved in the trafficking of drugs, and murder results in your activities, you go to death," said Biden at the beginning of his remarks, in what appears to be a reference to the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

That law expanded the federal death penalty to apply to murders committed as part of a drug trafficking conspiracy. Biden would go on to help write the 1994 crime bill, which "authorized the death penalty for dozens of existing and new federal crimes."

Biden also sought credit for expanding civil asset forfeiture—a practice that allows the government to seize your property even if you've been convicted of no crime.

"We changed the law so that if you are arrested, and you are a drug dealer, under our forfeiture statutes, you can, the government can take everything you own," said Biden, referencing the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which the then-senator from Delaware sponsored alongside Sen. Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.).

"Everything from your car to your house, your bank account, not merely what they confiscate in terms of the dollars from the transaction you just got caught engaging in," added Biden.

Reason has written endlessly about the abuses of civil asset forfeiture (see here, here, and here for some examples), and there is now a growing bipartisan consensus that that the practice is dire need of reform or even abolition.

As if defending the death penalty and civil asset forfeiture weren't enough, Biden manages to squeeze in a glowing reference to mandatory minimum sentencing at the tail end of his remarks.

"We have laws that don't allow judges discretion to sentence people, flat time sentencing. You get caught, you go to jail," says Biden before the clip cuts off.

Needless to say, all three of these policies are anathema to many Democratic primary voters today, and indeed many Republicans too, who've come around to seeing the error of the tough-on-crime approach so zealously pursed by Biden.

Attitudes have shifted so far on criminal justice issues that even Biden himself has had to engage in a little self-reflection.

"I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried," said Biden during a January speech, referring to his record on criminal justice issues.

In one sense, Biden's expression of regret is a sign of tremendous progress. The primary voters he needs to get the Democratic nomination are increasingly turned off by the policies he used to champion.

Will a few brief expressions of regret be enough for those same voters to give Biden a pass for his central role in creating an era of mass incarceration? That remains to be seen.