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Joe Biden reduced murders, reformed criminal justice
policy and made America safer
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 6:00 a.m. ET May 24, 2019
Joe Biden deserves credit, not criticism, for all that he has
done throughout this career to reduce and assist the number of crime
When someone has been in public life as long as Joe
Biden, critics and challengers on the campaign trail have ample material to
pick apart for political advantage. There is no doubt that during his nearly
half-century in Congress and the White House, Biden has made his share of
blunders and faux pas, the majority of which were relatively minor or even
However, recent allegations that Biden bears responsibility
for the nation's mass incarceration problem is not only inaccurate, but
downright insulting to a man who has distinguished himself as one of the
most progressive federal lawmakers in terms of criminal justice policy.
The years leading up to the much-discussed 1994 Crime Bill were
challenging, to say the least, with violent crime rates soaring to record
levels. From 1990 through 1993, for example, nearly 100,000 Americans were
murdered, two-thirds by guns, more than in any other similar time span,
before or after. Something had to be done, and Biden had the political will
and skill to translate good ideas into effective policy.
As early as
1990, Biden, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, recognized and
responded to the growing crisis by holding hearings on the nation's homicide
epidemic. In his introductory remarks, he talked of the 3-Ds deadly weapons,
drugs and demographics.
Biden's observations were spot on. The surge
in homicide at that time was exclusively among teens and young adults,
completely gun-related, and linked to the emerging crack cocaine markets in
major cities from New York to Los Angeles. While the subsequent concern for
sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was legitimate, it was
crack, not powder, that drove the crime surge some three decades ago.
Republicans redacted Biden's progress
approach was clearly more preventative than punitive. At the 1990 hearing,
for example, he called for investing in drug education for youth and drug
treatment for addicts. In contrast, Sen. Alan Spector, the ranking
Republican on the Judiciary Committee, argued instead for tougher
prosecution and expanding the death penalty.
While it is true that
Biden had a major hand in crafting the Crime Bill, his was not the only one,
as passage of the massive piece of legislation required bipartisan support
and thus much compromise.
Reflecting Biden's influence, the final
version of the Crime Bill included over $7 billion for a basket of
prevention programs. However, once Republicans took control of Congress in
the 1994 midterms, it became more like a trash basket of prevention.
The Republican |Contract with America| set a new path, shifting the emphasis
from early prevention to harsh punishment. The Contract promised |an
anti-crime package including stronger truth-in-sentencing, 'good faith'
exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts
in social spending from this summer's 'crime' bill to fund prison
construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their
neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools. It had become a political
liability to advocate prevention.Biden's bill made America
Whatever share of responsibility that Biden may own
for the growth in prison populations over the next decade or more, he should
be praised for his central role in pushing legislation that saved thousands
of lives. He was instrumental in helping to get the Brady Law through
Congress, after which the nation's rate of gun homicide started its
long-term slide. He was the chief proponent and author of the Violence
Against Women Act, an initiative that helped lower the rate of women
murdered by their intimate partners by more than 25% in subsequent years.
The streets of American cities are much safer today than a
quarter-century ago before wide-ranging changes in federal crime control
policy were enacted. Taken together, Joe Biden deserves credit, not
criticism, for all that he has done throughout this career to reduce the
number of crime victims and for providing assistance to those unfortunate to
become one.James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of
Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, a member of
USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and co-author of "The Will to Kill: Making
Sense of Senseless Murder." Follow him on Twitter: @jamesalanfox