Joe Biden Must Face a Reckoning For His Role in Building Mass Incarceration

Joe Biden continues to lie about his role as the primary architect of our modern day systems of mass incarceration in this country. Although he tried to evade the issue during the recent democratic debate, Biden cannot escape this reality. It’s a despicable legacy, and he’s now running for office at a time when people understand the true human toll from Biden’s role in imagining, building, and then defending mass incarceration for generations. Last month, nearly three weeks after Biden waxed nostalgic about his time in the Senate crafting anti-busing legislation alongside open white supremacists, he finally apologized for the gross insensitivity of it all. He’s not quite known for offering apologies. This April he literally said, “I’m not sorry for anything I’ve ever done.” His apology on busing could’ve been a step in the right direction, but sadly, Joe said something else in his apology speech that was so dishonest, ahistorical, and sincerely offensive that we must confront it. It has become a theme of his campaign, and it simply cannot continue.

Following his apology for how he previously characterized open bigots like James Eastland, Biden began a series of blatant lies about his essential role in crafting and building the modern systems of mass incarceration. Recalling the 1994 Crime Bill, Biden said “The bill also included things I didn’t like. I didn’t support the provision the President wanted called ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’. Didn’t support it then. Don’t support it now (applause). I didn’t support any mandatory minimums (applause). I didn’t support more money to build state prisons. I was against it (applause).”

In just 20 seconds, Biden told at least three bold lies about his actual record in fighting for mass incarceration, perhaps more than any other United States Senator over the course of nearly thirty years. His lies weren’t slight fudges. They weren’t differences of opinions. They were egregious, revisionist, bold-faced lies that are each easily disproved with a simple Google search. When he told such lies he not only insulted the intelligence and good will of the people in the room, he revealed a disturbing character flaw that is downright Trumpian. When his back is against the wall on an issue, Joe Biden is fully willing to stare us down and lie right to our faces. That’s precisely what he has done here, and he must answer for it.

The problem is not just that Joe Biden was a primary architect of modern day mass incarceration, it’s that after an entire lifetime of openly bragging that he was its primary architect, he now thinks simply saying that he wasn’t is enough to make it so.

Just this week, he again denied his role while challenging Senator Cory Booker’s (D-N.J.) record on race.

It’s gaslighting supreme. Don’t take our word for it, take Joe’s words for it. Before the Crime Bill passed in 1994, Biden brashly stated, “The truth is every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.” And it’s true. Biden was not just the primary author of the 1994 Crime Bill, he was the primary author of most so-called crime bills from the 1970s until 2008. On many of them, he routinely collaborated not just with white supremacist Democrat James Eastland to get them passed, but regularly co-sponsored them with Strom Thurmond, his Republican counterpart on the Senate Judiciary Committee. As Biden now claims he held his nose to work with these men, his own letters and correspondence with them says otherwise. Biden literally gave Strom Thurmond’s eulogy. Let’s address each lie — one by one.

Lie #1: “I didn’t support any mandatory minimums.”

Joe Biden fought for so many mandatory minimums over the course of his career, that an accurate count has never been issued of just how many people received them — it’s certainly in the millions. Biden began writing and passing laws for mandatory minimums as far back as 1977, regularly collaborating with the bigots — Eastland and Thurmond — to get them passed. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s Biden continued fighting tooth and nail for mandatory minimums and made bragging about them a regular part of his political commentary. It’s truly incredulous to hear him now say “I didn’t support any mandatory minimums” when nobody supported them for more people, for more crimes, than Joe Biden. Multiple bills for mandatory minimums with his name on them became law years before his infamous Crime Bill. And regarding the 1994 Crime Bill, as late as 2015, he called the Crime Bill, “the 1994 Biden Crime Bill.” It’s his, and it too, was full of mandatory minimums, including the death penalty for so many crimes that Biden openly joked that people said he was going to kill people for everything but jaywalking. Biden routinely tries to wiggle his way out of the consequences of the 1994 Crime Bill by saying that most people in prison aren’t in federal prison, but are in state prison, but this, too, is gaslighting on steroids. The 1994 Crime Bill required any cities or states that accepted any of the tens of billions of federal dollars the bill provided to adopt the mandatory minimum sentenced that he authored. No states turned down the money. And in a matter of months, states across the country began adopting the Biden standards for mandatory minimums. None of his policies, of course, did more harm than the 100 to 1 sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine. It’s literally the exact same substance — just one is cooked and the other isn’t, but over 90% of the people charged for crimes related to crack cocaine were people of color — with sentences literally 100 times longer than those caught with cocaine.

Over and over again, Biden’s laws, some of which stand to this day, took away the discretion of judges and prosecutors to determine someone’s sentence. Here’s Biden, a year after his 1994 Crime Bill passed, bragging about how states are already adopting his mandatory minimums and even saying he wishes the minimums could be even harsher.

Lie #2: “I didn’t support more money to build state prisons. I was against it.”

This lie is particularly painful and egregious, not just because Biden has now repeated it multiple times on the campaign trail, but because billions of dollars of funding for the construction of state prisons was an essential component of the 1994 Crime Bill. It was at the core of the bill. Joe knows this. Every expert on mass incarceration knows this. And that’s why one of the leading fact-checkers in the world, Daniel Dale, who typically works around the clock to fact-check Donald Trump, had to pivot from his Trump duties on Sunday evening to call out Biden’s dishonesty about this. Biden literally wrote the law that provided a staggering $6 billion for the construction of new state and local jails and prisons, but it eventually increased to $10 billion and he still supported it. As you can imagine, states spent every single penny of that. He openly bragged that his bill helped build at least “125,000 new state prison cells.” And to accept the money for those 125,000 new state prison cells, states had to agree to the harshest mandatory minimums in American history — which ultimately meant that states simply could not build prisons fast enough because Biden’s laws meant that once people got in, they rarely got out until their sentence was fully served. Biden railed against probation and parole and mocked states that didn’t require men and women to serve all, or nearly all of their prison sentences. “What do you need?” Biden asked rhetorically on the Senate floor in 1994 — repeating the question Biden said he asked of police unions before he wrote the 1994 Crime Bill. “They said, ‘The first thing we need is we need more cops.’ And they said, ‘The second thing we need is we need more prisons.’”

Biden obliged. The United States government obliged. And so, over the course of the next ten years, over a million more people were imprisoned nationwide. Fourteen years after the Crime Bill passed, on Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign website, he continued to brag about forcing mandatory minimums on states and giving those states money to build more prisons to they enforce those rules. It stated, “Joe Biden has written legislation that provides funds to states for building prisons if they agree to keep their violent offenders behind bars for at least 85 percent of their sentence.”

But now, incredulously, while speaking to a nearly all-Black audience in South Carolina, Biden pretends it was all a dream.

Lie #3: “I didn’t support the provision the President wanted called ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’. Didn’t support it then. Don’t support it now.”

From 1987 to 1995, Joe Biden was the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats controlled the Senate during those eight years and Biden completely controlled not just the narrative on every piece of Senate legislation on America’s justice system, he controlled the details. The horrible “three strikes and you’re out” provision of the bill, which gave people life sentences for a third felony, even if two were non-violent felonies, was not introduced to the legislation by Republicans. Democrats introduced it. Both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore championed the three strikes provision, Democrats in the House campaigned for it, and Biden willingly included it in his versions of the bill. Again, he called it “the 1994 Biden Crime Bill.” He authored it.

When he ran for President in 2008, he called the bill “The Biden Crime law” on his campaign website. And in fourteen subsequent years in the senate, Biden did absolutely nothing to repeal it. Again, the three-strikes provision was only in the bill because Biden wrote it into the bill. While Biden said at the time that it was “wacko” to incarcerate people for life for three less serious felony convictions, he later said he ultimately still supported the provision because it also put people away for life who committed more serious felonies. For Biden, the trade was fair — he was willing to lock people up and throw away the key for relatively minor convictions if it also meant incarcerating more violent criminals. This week, as Senator Corey Booker hits back at Biden, also calling him the “architect of mass incarceration,” Biden just continues to lie about his role — mainly continuing to say that he couldn’t have been the architect because most crimes are prosecuted on the state level and senators don’t make state laws. But Biden knows good and well that his crime bills had the most impact on states. More than anything, it appears that Biden is hoping that voters have selective amnesia, forgetting his 30 years in the Senate and simply focusing on his eight years as Obama’s Vice President.

About the Author

Shaun King is the founder and CEO of The North Star. Hailed by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in the world on the Internet, King brings striking clarity to the insidious and complicated picture of racism today. As a journalist, King has authored 1,500 articles on injustice since the start of the Black Lives Matter Movement. He is co-founder of the Real Justice PAC, and the voice of social justice on the legendary Tom Joyner Morning Show.