Tuesday, June 25, 2019

‘Lock the S.O.B.s Up’: Joe Biden and the Era of Mass Incarceration

The Long Run

‘Lock the S.O.B.s Up’: Joe Biden and the Era of Mass Incarceration

He now plays down his role overhauling crime laws with segregationist senators in the ’80s and ’90s. That portrayal today is at odds with his actions and rhetoric back then.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 1994, after a vote ensuring the passage of a vast crime bill, one of several key pieces of crime legislation he helped write.CreditCreditJohn Duricka/Associated Press

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Astead W. Herndon
June 25, 2019

WASHINGTON — In September 1994, as President Bill Clinton signed the new Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in an elaborately choreographed ceremony on the south lawn of the White House, Joseph R. Biden Jr. sat directly behind the president’s lectern, flashing his trademark grin.

For Mr. Clinton, the law was an immediate follow-through on his campaign promise to focus more federal attention on crime prevention. But for Mr. Biden, the moment was the culmination of his decades-long effort to more closely marry the Democratic Party and law enforcement, and to transform the country’s criminal justice system in the process. He had won.

“The truth is,” Mr. Biden had boasted a year earlier in a speech on the Senate floor, “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.”

Now, more than 25 years later, as Mr. Biden makes his third run for the White House in a crowded field of Democrats — many calling for ambitious criminal justice reform — he must answer for his role in legislation that criminal justice experts and his critics say helped lay the groundwork for the mass incarceration that has devastated America’s black communities. That he worked with segregationists to write the bills — an issue that recently dominated the political news and seems likely to resurface in Mr. Biden’s first debate on Thursday — has only added to his challenge. So has the fact that black voters are such a crucial Democratic constituency.

Mr. Biden apologized in January for portions of his anti-crime legislation, but he has largely tried to play down his involvement, saying in April that he “got stuck with” shepherding the bills because he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But an examination of his record — based on newly obtained documents and interviews with nearly two dozen longtime Biden contemporaries in Washington and Delaware — indicates that Mr. Biden’s current characterization of his role is in many ways at odds with his own actions and rhetoric.

Mr. Biden arrived in the Senate in 1973 having forged close ties with black constituents but also with law enforcement, and bearing the grievances of the largely white electorate in Delaware. He courted one Southern segregationist senator, James O. Eastland of Mississippi, who helped him land spots on the committee and subcommittees dealing with criminal justice and prisons, and became a close friend and legislative partner of another, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

While Mr. Biden has said in recent days that he and Mr. Eastland “didn’t agree on much of anything,” it is clear that on a number of important criminal justice issues, they did. As early as 1977, Mr. Biden, with Mr. Eastland’s support, pushed for mandatory minimum sentences that would limit judges’ discretion in sentencing. But perhaps even more consequential was Mr. Biden’s relationship with Mr. Thurmond, his Republican counterpart on the judiciary panel, who became his co-author on a string of bills that effectively rewrote the nation’s criminal justice laws with an eye toward putting more criminals behind bars.

In 1989, with the violent crime rate continuing to rise as it had since the 1970s, Mr. Biden lamented that the Republican president, George H. W. Bush, was not doing enough to put “violent thugs” in prison. In 1993, he warned of “predators on our streets.” And in a 1994 Senate floor speech, he likened himself to another Republican president: “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 S.O.B.s up.’”

At a time when Democrats tended to espouse the “root cause” theory of crime — the idea that poverty and other social ills bred criminal activity — and Republicans thought punishment was the answer, Mr. Biden wanted to “abandon the old debate,” as he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in June 1994. But he often seemed to tilt strongly toward the Republican view.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society,” Mr. Biden said in 1993, adding, “I don’t want to ask, ‘What made them do this?’ They must be taken off the street.”

Mr. Biden declined an interview for this article. In a statement, his campaign said that he had “fought to defeat systemic racism and unacceptable racial disparities for his entire career,” and that he “believes that too many people of color are in jail in this country.” The statement went on, “As president, he would fight to put an end to mandatory minimums, private prisons and cash bail, and he would support automatic expungement for marijuana offenses because he believes no one should be in jail for marijuana.”

On the campaign trail in South Carolina on Saturday, Mr. Biden hinted that he intended to propose a criminal justice reform package to do just that, and also proposed extending Pell education grants to prisoners — moves that would directly repudiate provisions of the 1994 crime bill.

“Instead of teaching people how to be better criminals in prison, we should be educating people in prison,” Mr. Biden told the South Carolina Democratic convention.

Biden supporters say his evolution should be admired, that he has grown on criminal justice issues as new evidence has emerged. Citing the strong public support for the crime bill at the time, they said Mr. Biden was responding to a national emergency of drug abuse and violence that had particularly terrorized black communities.

But other Democrats say a fuller reckoning is required.

Representative Bobby Rush, a veteran congressman from Chicago, described the crime bill as “a proverbial Trojan horse” for black communities and called his “yes” vote the worst he had given in more than a quarter-century in the House.

“Did he not know that the war on drugs combined with the legislative imprimatur of the U.S. Congress and federal law would create havoc in our communities?” Mr. Rush said, referring to Mr. Biden. “And I wonder, what was he responding to?”

What he was responding to, according to Harmon Carey, director of the Afro-American Historical Society in Wilmington, were the powerful political currents of his home state. During the 1980s and 1990s, Delaware was a place in transition, with a booming financial-services culture clashing with the rising poverty, crime and racial tension in Wilmington, the state’s largest city, which is also majority-black.

“Joe’s a decent fella, but he was doing what his white constituents wanted,” Mr. Carey said. “The white people wanted to send people to prison. They wanted cops. And that’s what he did.”
Racial Ferment in Delaware

Mr. Biden was a political unknown, a onetime public defender who had served just two years on the New Castle County Council, when he pulled off a stunning electoral upset, unseating a popular Republican senator by a margin of less than 1 percent. The year was 1972. The new senator-elect was

He had come of age during a time of intense racial ferment in his adopted state. Wilmington erupted in rioting after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in the spring of 1968, and the governor imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and called in the National Guard, an occupation that lasted nine months. In 1971, black students in the city filed a class-action lawsuit to force schools to desegregate.

In this environment, Mr. Biden would quickly position himself as a new type of white politician: always approachable, with meaningful personal relationships in black communities. To this day, Mr. Biden tells the story of how, home from college for the summer, he was the only white lifeguard at a largely black municipal swimming pool.

“The nightly news had a way of making these stories seem like a conversation between the races in Wilmington, but I knew blacks and whites weren’t talking to one another,” Mr. Biden wrote in his autobiography “Promises to Keep.” “I knew that from my experience at [the] swimming pool.”
The Wilmington swimming pool where Mr. Biden once worked as a lifeguard has been renamed in his honor.CreditSuchat Pederson/The Wilmington News-Journal, via Associated Press

The Wilmington swimming pool where Mr. Biden once worked as a lifeguard has been renamed in his honor.CreditSuchat Pederson/The Wilmington News-Journal, via Associated Press

Still, his relationship with Wilmington’s black community was complicated. As a freshman senator, he spoke out against the state’s court-ordered school-busing program. Busing was not universally popular among African-Americans, several community leaders recalled in interviews, but Mr. Biden’s vocal opposition went further.

“The real problem with busing,” Mr. Biden said in 1975, “is you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school, and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”

From his first term, Mr. Biden made his focus clear: the environment, a balanced budget and, especially, crime — all issues that other Democrats were not addressing, said Ted Kaufman, one of Mr. Biden’s closest and longest-running advisers.

“He knew and said that the main victims of crime were in the African-American community, so he ran on saying we have to do something about getting tough on crime,” Mr. Kaufman said, adding that Mr. Biden had also stressed the need to protect defendants’ civil liberties.

That tough-on-crime stance, Mr. Kaufman said, was “a very popular position to take in the African-American community.” But in interviews with community leaders in Wilmington, not everyone agreed. Though they remembered Mr. Biden fondly and said he remained widely popular in the black community, several stressed that their focus had been on systemic problems like economic inequality and failing schools — not on getting more police officers and prisons.

“We thought job opportunities would reduce the number of people on the corners resorting to drugs and crimes,” said the Rev. Dr. Vincent Oliver, a Wilmington pastor and longtime civil-rights activist.

Added James M. Baker, a former Wilmington mayor, who is black, “We knew you couldn’t arrest your way out of the problem.”

But Mr. Biden’s newfound agenda did appeal to a different, and larger, segment of Delaware’s electorate: white voters. In Delaware, the southern portions of the state are often likened to the lands of the Old South; and at the same time, many northern white liberals had fled Wilmington and shared Mr. Biden’s opposition to busing. In 1978, Mr. Biden would cruise to re-election, winning by 17 points.

In his next term, Mr. Biden would begin a legislative push against crime that would last nearly two decades. In that time, according to Mr. Carey, the historical society leader, he often struck a careful balance, using personal relationships to maintain his good standing in Delaware’s black community, while carefully legislating in the more conservative interests of white voters and law enforcement.

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