Joe Biden calls crime bill a ‘mistake’ during town hall

The controversial 1994 bill was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus and Black mayors at the time.

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At his town hall event with ABC News Thursday night, former vice president Joe Biden argued his case for the top job, answering directly to a mix of still-undecided, socially-distanced voters in Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.

In a question posed by a white woman who had previously voted Republican, the Democratic presidential nominee was asked about his role, as Delaware senator, in the writing of the 1994 crime bill, a signature piece of legislation that is often cited as being detrimental to African Americans.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in Thursday’s town hall conversation with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if it was a mistake to support the bill, Biden replied, “Yes, it was. But here’s where the mistake came. The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally.”

Biden noted that while the federal government lowered mandatory minimums and a statute he called “same crime, same time,” those elements applied mostly to federal offenses. States retained their own sentencing power and ability to build more prisons, which they did.

Biden also noted that the bill was created after a spike in crime in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Scholars have noted that for urban centers, this timing aligns with the height of the crack epidemic. Parts of the bill toughened sentences for possession of crack cocaine during an epidemic that disproportionately affected Blacks.

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He now contends that no one should serve time in prison for drug possession, and the country instead should be funding rehabilitation centers.

The former vice president also noted that, at the time, the crime bill was supported by the Congressional Black Caucus and Black mayors across the nation. However, he also said, “things have changed drastically,” noting that violent crime has dropped dramatically, and racial justice issues in America are different now than at that period.

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This is not the first time that Biden has said elements of the controversial bill were a mistake. Speaking at a breakfast honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. last January, Biden called parts of the bill “a big mistake.”

“We were told by the experts that ‘[with] crack, you can never go back;’ it was somehow fundamentally different,” he said at the event. “It’s not different. It’s trapped an entire generation.”

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