As protests over the horrific police killing of George Floyd devolved into looting, vandalism, and arson across America, destroying black lives and livelihoods, Democrats like presumptive nominee Joe Biden have attempted to accuse President Donald Trump of encouraging violence when he said the riots dishonored George Floyd and suggested bringing in the National Guard to quell the riots. Biden also rushed to condemn Trump for holding up a Bible at St. John’s Church, which had been torched in the riots.
Yet on Thursday, Trump flipped the script on Biden with one simple tweet.
“Sleepy Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill was a total disaster. It was mass incarceration for Black people, many of them innocent. I did Criminal Justice Reform, something Obama & Biden didn’t even try to do – & couldn’t do even if they did try,” the president tweeted. “Biden can never escape his Crime Bill!”
Sleepy Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill was a total disaster. It was mass incarceration for Black people, many of them innocent. I did Criminal Justice Reform, something Obama & Biden didn’t even try to do – & couldn’t do even if they did try. Biden can never escape his Crime Bill!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2020
Trump overstated his case, but he leveled an incredibly effective attack against Joe Biden.
Obama’s record on criminal justice reform
While it is not true that the Obama administration “didn’t even try to do” criminal justice reform, only President Donald Trump signed a bill passed by Congress addressing important reforms.
The Obama administration’s work on criminal justice reform was mostly limited to commutations and changes in administrative procedures.
Obama issued clemency to nearly 1,000 inmates during his tenure, more than his last three predecessors combined. His administration created a presidential commission to study mass incarceration in 2014, releasing a report in May 2015. The Obama administration also established a commission to review federal prison funding and the use of military-grade equipment by law enforcement. That administration also changed federal policy to ban the question asking applicants for federal government work whether or not they’ve been convicted of a crime.
Obama’s long list of commutations seems impressive, but only three of his commutations came during his first term. So far, Trump has issued nine commutations. Among the commutations was Alice Marie Johnson, a nonviolent drug offender who helped lead a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring from 1991 to 1994. She was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison, an arguably overharsh sentence. Among others, Kim Kardashian pleaded with Trump to commute her sentence after she had spent more than 20 years in prison.
While it is not true that Obama “didn’t even try” to achieve criminal justice reform, it is true that President Trump actually signed a law on the issue — the First Step Act — while Obama did not. This is a much more significant achievement than the Obama administration’s tinkering around the edges. Liberal critics have claimed Trump’s administration has undermined the First Step Act, but they cannot deny this key legislative achievement. Trump has also promised a “Second Step” will be forthcoming.
As Obama wrote this week, the most important kind of criminal justice reform happens at the local level. The cases of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor illustrate different kinds of abuse of police power, each of which can be most easily reversed on the local level. Americans should demand that police officers not develop an “old boys club” that shields police and their families from the same laws that apply to other citizens. In many cases, police unions protect bad cops when they should not.
It is important, however, to have true criminal justice reform — not anti-police activism masquerading as criminal justice reform, which has done so much damage in Chicago.
The true brilliance of Trump’s tweet has less to do with the president’s record and more to do with the record of Joe Biden. Criminal justice reform advocates are working to fix a system created in the 1980s and 1990s and spearheaded by none other than Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., the senator from the Great State of Delaware.
Joe Biden’s record
In 1993, Biden bragged about sponsoring every single major crime bill since 1976.
“So, I hope that this crime bill when it passes, the Biden/Hatch crime bill, as it becomes law, God willing, I hope that we will have ended once and for all this notion that as a hangover from the ’60s that somehow Democrats are weak on crime and Democratic presidents are weak on crime, and Republicans are tough on crime,” the then-senator declared.
“The truth is every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the state of Delaware, Joe Biden, on that bill, and has had a majority vote of the Democratic members of the United States Senate on the bill,” he added.
Joe Biden apologized for those remarks back in January 2019, but how reliable is an apology for his decades of a “tough-on-crime” stance decades later?
“I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried,” Biden told Axios. “It was a big mistake when it was made. We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack you never go back, [and that the two were] somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different. But it’s trapped an entire generation.”
Biden has argued that the 1994 crime bill to which Trump alludes, which introduced the federal three-strikes law, did not contribute to mass incarceration. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor who has rushed to champion drug legalization to move away from her own tough-on-crime record, disagreed.
“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,” she said. “And so I disagree, sadly.”
Joe Biden will have to explain voting for mandatory minimums, drug criminalization, and more. It seems the former vice president is rushing to distance himself from his own record — never a strong position for a presidential candidate. While he has made many promises to support criminal justice reform, can advocates really trust him?
Especially in the aftermath of the brutal police killing of George Floyd, Biden’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill may hang across his neck like an albatross.
Democrats may attack President Trump for championing law and order at a time when black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments are getting destroyed by lawless rioters, but Trump has a far better record on criminal justice reform.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.