Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris on Wednesday said she disagrees with former Vice President Joe Biden’s assessment that the 1994 crime bill he pushed “did not generate mass incarceration.”
“I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Joe Biden, but I disagree with him,” Harris, a former prosecutor, told CNN in a gaggle with reporters in Nashua, New Hampshire. “That crime bill – that 1994 crime bill – it did contribute to mass incarceration in our country. It encouraged and was the first time that we had a federal three strikes law. It funded the building of more prisons in the states. So, I disagree, sadly.”
Harris’ comments illustrate how Biden’s support of the bill, which provided federal funds for new cops and prisons and tightened federal sentencing guidelines, will continue to face scrutiny during his 2020 presidential bid as the “tough on crime” policies of the ’90s have fallen out of favor within the Democratic Party.
Biden was pressed about his role in passing the bill during a campaign event in Nashua on Monday afternoon; he told a New Hampshire voter, “This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration – it did not generate mass incarceration.”
“The mass incarceration occurred by the states setting mandatory sentences,” he added. “What happened is, if you go back and look, the black caucus supported the bill.”
Experts told CNN that it’s difficult to assess how the 1994 bill contributed to mass incarceration because incarceration rates had been steadily rising since the early 1970s. But the experts also said federal policy and federal money – including the 1994 crime bill – do impact the way that states incarcerate.
Biden did acknowledge that there were “mistakes that were made.” “The biggest mistake in that bill was my view, was making crack cocaine and powder cocaine a different sentence,” he said.
Biden also said the three-strike policy under the law was one he was forced to accept in exchange for provisions against domestic violence and gun violence.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand contributed