In a campaign speech in South Carolina on Saturday, former Vice President Joe Biden defended the 1994 anti-crime law he played a primary role in writing.
But he claimed that his record on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act had been “grossly misrepresented.” He distanced himself from some of the key provisions of the law, including its billions in funding for states to build prisons.
“I didn’t support more money to build state prisons. I was against it. We should be building rehab centers and not prisons,” he said Saturday.
He was misrepresenting his own record.
Facts First: Biden expressed unequivocal support, in both 1994 and in the years following, for the law’s billions in funding to build state prisons, including in his home state of Delaware. He argued in 1994 that the law should include less money for prison construction than Republicans wanted to spend – but he emphasized that he too wanted to spend billions.
The bipartisan law included a multitude of provisions, some preferred by conservatives and some preferred by liberals. Biden made clear at the time that he did not support all of them. But he also made clear, over and over again, that he thought it was a good idea to spend more money on building and expanding state prisons.
Biden was then a senator for Delaware and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In June 1994, he told the congressional conference committee working on the bill that while the federal government had passed effective anti-crime policies – “We built prisons to keep pace with the number of federal prisoners,” he said as one example – “states have fallen behind.”
“They have too few cops, too few prison cells, too few programs to help our children avoid crime,” he said.
He then addressed critics in the media who argued that everything he was proposing in the bill had been tried before.
“We have not built new prisons to keep up with the increase in violent crime in America. We have not tried and failed – we haven’t tried at a state level before. And this is partially our attempt to help the states and localities try,” he said.
Biden could accurately say that he did not want to spend as much on state prison construction as the other party. In an August 1994 press conference, he argued that the $10 billion in prison funding included in the latest version of the bill was “too much money on prisons.” He said, “I don’t want that money. And I like the figure that I wrote in my bills: $6 billion.”
Biden’s campaign did not dispute the fact that Biden had supported spending more money on state prisons than was being spent at the time the law was written. But campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said Biden’s Saturday remark was being misinterpreted.
When Biden said “I didn’t support more money to build state prisons,” Bates said, Biden did not mean he had opposed any additional spending on state prisons. Rather, Bates said, he meant that he had not supported the Republican push to spend $10 billion on state prisons instead of the $6 billion Biden had proposed himself. This $4 billion extra, Bates said, was the “more money” Biden was talking about having been against.
“Vice President Biden was referring to how Republicans wanted to provide more money for prison construction than he felt was right,” Bates said.
Even in the 1994 press conference, Biden said he accepted the $10 billion figure as a matter of “compromise.” And before and after the press conference, he made a vigorous case for the principle of spending on state prisons.
The 1994 law did not simply hand states the billions for prison construction. Rather, it made the money conditional on state efforts to force violent offenders to serve a greater portion of their prison sentences. One of the law’s grant programs was reserved for states that passed laws to require violent offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences or more, or states in which these offenders already were doing so.
“I think the American people want the federal government to give states monies to build prisons so no hardened criminal is let out, as they say, before his time,” Biden told the Senate in August 1994.
Later that month, Biden disputed a claim from Republican Senator Orrin Hatch that the bill had been made soft by liberal Democrats. As evidence, Biden said, “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.”
Bates, Biden’s campaign spokesperson, said Sunday: “Throughout the debate over the 1994 Crime Bill, Republicans pressed to include much more severe measures and approaches than then-Senator Biden supported. The GOP also opposed the unprecedented funding for crime prevention programs that he fought to ensure was in the law – and they later excoriated the bill for being ‘soft on crime.’”
Biden never described prison funding as a panacea. He said in 1994 that “it is not enough simply to keep building prisons,” since “the prison population keeps growing to fill new spaces.” And in 1993, his campaign noted Sunday, he called for addressing the “root causes” of crime.
But he also continued to tout the prison funding in the years following the law’s passage.
In a 1997 speech to a conference held by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, Biden listed “more prisons” as one of the “smart” policies passed in 1994.
“It was only a very few years ago when no one thought we could do anything about violent crime. But in 1994, we started getting smart. We did it all: more police, more prisons, more treatment and more prevention. And, what was unthinkable just a few years ago has happened. Just look at the most recent FBI data: murder has fallen to the lowest rate since 1970,” he said.
In 1998, Biden’s Senate office issued a press release titled “Biden Announces Additional $2.6 Million for Prison Construction,” which noted that the funding for Delaware “comes through the 1994 Biden Crime Law.” The release featured this quote from Biden: “Delaware leads the nation with some of the toughest and longest sentences. The Crime Law is backing up that tough talk on crime with the funding needed to help states keep criminals off the streets.”
In response to recent criticism from progressives, Biden has emphasized that the law also had provisions that today’s Democrats like. He said Saturday that it provided money for states and communities to establish drug courts, which divert offenders struggling with substance abuse away from prison and into treatment; that it created the Violence Against Women Act; and that it imposed a ban on some semi-automatic “assault weapons.”
That is all true. But it’s also true that he was inaccurately describing his 1994 position on prison funding.
This article has been updated to include additional comments from the Biden campaign on its interpretation of his remarks in the Saturday speech.