Cory Booker rips Joe Biden over 1994 crime bill: “People make mistakes, but let’s hold them to that”

Biden recently pushed back against “this idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration” in New Hampshire

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 30, 2019 4:47PM (EDT)

Cory Booker; Joe Biden (Getty/Salon)
Cory Booker; Joe Biden (Getty/Salon)

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., blasted former Vice President Joe Biden for his work on a controversial 1994 crime bill, which critics allege to have played a major role in America’s current mass incarceration crisis.

"I use this word sincerely. I ‘love’ Joe Biden," Booker told HuffPost in an interview.

That being said, Booker explained that his criticisms of the bill included "the incentives they put in that bill for people to raise mandatory minimums, for building prisons and jails. From the time I was in law school to the time I was mayor of the city of Newark, we were building a new prison or jail every 10 days in America, while the rest of our infrastructure crumbled ― overwhelmingly putting people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses that members of Congress and the Senate admit to breaking now. That bill was awful."

Booker added, "We should all agree with the force of conviction – that bill was a mistake. Good people signed on to that bill. People make mistakes, but let’s hold them to that. That crime bill was shameful – what it did to black and brown communities like mine [and] low-income communities from Appalachia to rural Iowa. It was a bad bill."

Biden has defended his support of the bill, telling a campaign crowd in New Hampshire that "this idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration – it did not generate mass incarceration."

Booker's criticism of Biden is noteworthy, because both men are vying for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination. One crucial difference between the pair, though, is that Biden has been the front-runner since the beginning of this election cycle, while Booker has struggled to gain traction in polls.

President Donald Trump himself has also criticized Biden's support for the bill, tweeting earlier this week that "anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected. In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you. I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, & helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!"

In a second tweet, the president added, "....Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing. That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!"

It is unclear how much of the blame for the mass incarceration crisis can be placed at the feet of the 1994 bill. The incarceration rate in the U.S. more than quadrupled between 1973 and 2009, according to CNN. As Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, told the news network, "No one bill created mass incarceration."

Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project, made a similar point to CNN, saying that "it is fair to say that the trajectory of increased incarceration had already begun before the 1994 crime bill."

While all of this is true, however, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act did provide states with monetary incentives to adopt tougher positions on crime and law enforcement. The Brennan Center explained this in a 2016 study:

The crime bill, however, was just the most high-profile legislation to increase the number of people behind bars. On their own, states passed three-strikes laws, enacted mandatory minimums, eliminated parole, and removed judicial discretion in sentencing. By dangling bonus dollars, the crime bill encouraged states to remain on their tough-on-crime course.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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1994 Crime Bill All Salon Cory Booker Crime Bill Joe Biden Mass Incarceration News & Politics