Biden's evolution away from drug-and-crime warrior mirrors America's — and Democrats' — changing attitudes

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the epidemic of crack cocaine abuse, Joe Biden was among the loudest Democratic voices calling for the party to take a tough-on-crime stand.

“America is under attack literally, under attack by an enemy who is well-financed, well-supplied, and well-armed and fully capable of declaring total war against a nation and its people, as we’ve seen in Colombia,” Biden said in a September 1989 speech. “Here in America, the enemy is already ashore and for the first time we are fighting and losing the war on our own soil.”

In an interview with the Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast, Eric Sterling, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, called Biden’s 1989 speech “one of the most egregious, heart-rending exaggerations” of the crime problem at that time and “chilling in its extremity.”

Biden’s comments were part of the official Democratic response to a speech by President George H.W. Bush introducing the Republican anti-drug program.

In 1989, crime rates were much higher than they are today, and drug-related crimes were a particularly hot-button political issue. Biden seized on that, Sterling said, evoking the fear of his wife being robbed while shopping for groceries.

“I wish I only had to worry about the prices my wife had to pay at the supermarket instead of fearing we might get mugged by a junkie at the supermarket as she loads her groceries into the car,” Biden said at the time.

Sterling called the speech “a real exaggeration and exploitation of the fears that people had.”

Sterling said Biden was not the only national politician making such claims in that era. He recalled how Biden’s comments came in response to an Oval Office speech by Bush, who held up a bag of crack he claimed Drug Enforcement Administration agents had seized from a pusher operating in a park across from the White House. (It would later emerge that the DEA had lured a man from northeast Washington to the White House to accommodate Bush’s need for a powerful example of the ubiquity of drug dealers.)

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., speaks at a news conference in Washington Thursday, August 25, 1994 after the Senate voted to push the $30 billion crime bill past a Republican procedural roadblock, moving it toward final passage and President Bill Clinton's signature. (John Duricka/AP Photo)
Sen. Joe Biden at a news conference in 1994, after the Senate voted to move the $30 billion crime bill toward final passage and President Bill Clinton's signature. (John Duricka/AP Photo)

“This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago by drug enforcement agents in a park just across the street from the White House,” Bush said in what was his first Oval Office speech as president. “It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones.”

Bush called for tougher enforcement, but by the mid-’90s crime was still a major issue.

In 1994, when Bill Clinton was president, Biden spearheaded the congressional effort to enact the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a priority for the Clinton White House at the time. The legislation created incentives for states to build more prisons and incorporated so-called “truth in sentencing” provisions that meant longer prison terms for drug offenders.

More than 20 years later, that sweeping bipartisan legislation is the subject of fierce debate as an increasing number of policymakers from both sides of the aisle decry the social cost and financial impact of mass incarceration.

The 1994 crime bill didn’t just pay for more prisons and police; it also included Democratic priorities including the Violence Against Women Act and a federal ban on certain assault weapons. But it banned inmates from applying for Pell grants and established a “three strikes” rule mandating life sentences for repeat felony offenders.

At the time, Biden was all for it. In a 1994 floor speech he said, “Every time Richard Nixon, when he was running in 1972, would say, ‘Law and order,’ the Democratic match or response was, ‘Law and order with justice’ — whatever that meant. And I would say, ‘Lock the SOBs up.’”

The Congressional Black Caucus supported the 1994 legislation, which disproportionately affected minorities. Sterling said he has been invited to testify in two federal trials alleging that federal sentencing guidelines set by the law are racist.

“When you look at how the Department of Justice under both parties overwhelmingly, disproportionately focused on African-Americans, the crack cocaine cases are the best example,” Sterling said. “Congress didn’t intend that crack be used to punish Black people, but it was certainly the consequence.”

Sterling said rhetoric in the era was also racially focused, including gratuitous references to Jamaican and Dominican drug dealers.

The rhetoric used to describe drug users was also very old-fashioned. In September 1989, Biden debated Sterling on drug policy at an event and focused on the “self-esteem” of addicts.

“Why do people keep taking drugs?” Biden asked. “In most all cases, it’s because they have low self-esteem and their self-image is not very much intact.”

Sterling said Biden’s language then seemed to reflect his view that deterrence alone might not discourage many people from drug use.

Biden has never apologized for his role in shaping the modern criminal justice system, but he has changed his position on several key points. He has admitted that the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine (most often used by Blacks) versus powder cocaine (more commonly used by whites) were unfair; he helped create the disparities in a bill passed in 1986. The former vice president is also now in favor of eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing and has reversed his position on the death penalty, which he now opposes.

Biden’s evolution is a reflection of society’s, Sterling said. Crime is down and people better understand and seek to preempt the racial disparities that have long been at the heart of the criminal justice system.

“It was a time when the rhetoric around drugs was a tool for partisan political battle,” Sterling said. “The violence did go down, drug use has also gone down, and crime in general across all categories has gone down dramatically in the last 25 years. ... We’re approaching as a society and as a culture these questions very, very differently.”


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