Biden Defends 1994 Crime Law and Calls for Climate ‘Revolution’

(Bloomberg) -- Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden defended his role in crafting the 1994 crime law on Monday in New Hampshire, countering criticism from progressives that it accelerated a trend toward mass incarceration and disproportionately harmed African Americans.

“There’s a whole lot of talk about Biden and the crime bill,” the former vice president and U.S. senator said at the Community Oven restaurant in Hampton, citing “three big things” in the legislation that he stands by.

“One-third of the $10 billion was for prevention," Biden said. "I got made fun of because it’s just Biden spending money not fighting crime, on prevention." He said the measure was packaged with a ban on certain types of military-style assault rifles and also with the Violence Against Women Act, both of which remain popular with Democrats today.

“We also set up drug courts so that we could divert people. They should be treated, not in jail,” Biden said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Biden didn’t mention the tough-on-crime provisions that have received criticism from the left and right, such as the “three strikes” rule that imposed mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders or the financial incentives for states to impose stricter sentencing laws.

Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator in South Carolina who is backing Senator Kamala Harris for the Democratic nomination, said Biden’s strong support among black voters could take a hit once his authorship of the crime bill gets more attention.

Hillary Clinton got heavy criticism for the ’94 crime bill "and she wasn’t even a member" of Congress, Sellers said. Biden is "the person who wrote the bill and the person who voted for the bill," he said. Biden was a senator at the time; Clinton didn’t become a senator until 2001, but she took heat in her 2016 presidential bid because her husband, Bill Clinton, signed the measure into law.

Some Biden supporters say his work on the crime bill made sense at the time.

"That was a different time. You’ve got to remember how it was in the late 1980s — some places were pretty lawless and there was bipartisan support to address some of the causes," said New Hampshire state representative Mike Edgar, a Democrat who introduced Biden on Monday.

At the event in New Hampshire, the first stop on a two-day swing, Biden also disputed the idea that he’s being too cautious on climate change, calling for an “environmental revolution” and promising to unveil his plan by the end of the month.

“We have an existential threat,” he said. “If we don’t act quickly we’re going to basically lose everything we have.” He hasn’t signed on to the "Green New Deal" supported by some of his Democratic campaign opponents.

Biden also called for eliminating “this darn tax cut” that President Donald Trump signed into law in 2017. He argued that it “only helps the very, very wealthy” and said Republicans will use the rising deficit as a justification to pursue cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.