Debates 2020

Cory Booker Is Right: Joe Biden's Criminal Justice Record 'Destroyed Lives'

"There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric."


A sharp exchange at tonight's Democratic debate showed that, no matter how much he'd like to, former Vice President Joe Biden won't be able to sidestep his disastrous record on criminal justice.

CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked Biden to respond to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker's criticism that Biden's recently unveiled criminal justice reform proposal was "an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country."

"Right now, we're in a situation where, when someone is convicted of a drug crime, they end up going to jail and to prison," Biden said. "They should be going to rehabilitation. They shouldn't be going to prison. When in prison, they should be learning to read and write and not just sit in there and learn how to be better criminals."

Booker took the opportunity to describe Biden's record on policing and incarceration.

"Mr. Vice President has said that, since the 1970s, every major crime bill—every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it," Booker said "And, sir, those are your words, not mine. And this is one of those instances where the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws. And you can't just now come out with a plan to put out that fire."

Biden responded by attacking Booker's record of lax police oversight as mayor of Newark, but Booker stayed on the offensive.

"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," Booker shot back. "All of the problems that he's talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law reversing the damage your bills did."

"There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people got elected but destroyed communities like mine," Booker continued.

Booker was right. As Reason's Christan Britschgi has written, Biden's new criminal justice reform platform is a rather explicit repudiation of, well, pretty much Biden's entire legislative career:

When he was a senator from Delaware, Biden was one of the original co-sponsors on the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. That law imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and created the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, two policies Biden now says should be eliminated completely.

Biden was also a sponsor of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, which expanded the application of the death penalty—another policy he now says should be abolished […]

Biden also supported the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—indeed, he sometimes calls it the Biden Crime Law. That piece of legislation helped to drive mass incarceration at the state level by expanding federal funding for prison construction.

Now, it's not true that any of Biden's bills single-handedly created mass incarceration, which was largely a state-level phenomenon. Those bills were also all the product of wide bipartisan agreement. But they all did their part to make the criminal justice system larger and crueler. 

It was only this year, and through an enormous amount of bipartisan effort, that more than 3,000 federal inmates serving draconian sentences under the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity finally had their sentences reduced

This is Biden's chief legacy, and he can't run from it. As one of Reason's recent podcasts put it "Hair-Sniffer Joe Biden Should Apologize For His Whole Career."