NASHUA — Former vice president Joe Biden wrapped up his first campaign swing in New Hampshire on Tuesday with a defense of his 1994 crime bill, which has since then been criticized for leading to mass incarceration, particularly of African-Americans.
“Folks, let’s get something straight: 92 out of every 100 prisoners behind bars are in a state prison, not a federal prison,” Biden said when asked about the bill’s role in the country’s high incarceration rate. “This idea that the crime bill created mass incarceration — it did not create mass incarceration.”
Taking questions from nearly 100 people in a cold drizzle, Biden said he was “the only one who took on the NRA on the national level and won” when, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman in the 1990s, he ushered through a crime bill that included a federal ban on assault weapons and other gun restrictions.
During his last public event in New Hampshire, Biden talked about his work on various legislative efforts during his 36 years in the Senate, including bills going back to the 1970s. But his vigorous six-minute defense of the crime bill was the most pointed.
The bill passed with bipartisan support, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law — although he has since expressed regrets about it.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton said to the NAACP convention in 2015, referring to disproportionate incarceration by race. “And I want to admit that.”
Biden offered no such admissions in Nashua, instead putting the blame on states.
“The states came along, check it out, they are the ones that put in mandatory minimum sentences, and the next argument that I got was that it was because I encouraged them,” Biden said. “I encouraged them?”
Biden conceded the bill wasn’t perfect and said one of the biggest mistakes was giving different sentences for convictions for powder versus crack cocaine, which was known to be more prevalent in communities of color.
Biden was also asked about the crime bill on Monday in Hampton.
“There’s a whole lot of talk about Biden and the crime bill,” Biden said, noting the nearly $10 billion the law set aside for crime prevention and to establish drug courts.
“I got made fun of because it’s just Biden spending money, not fighting crime, [but] on prevention,” Biden said.
Still, the issue could continue to follow the former senator from Delaware, particularly as rivals may look to use it as a way to criticize Biden, the race’s clear front-runner in public polling.
Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, for example, is running partly on his bipartisan work on a bill that would reverse many sentences enacted by states and the federal government during the 1990s.