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How Joe Biden has Historically Played a Role in Mass Incarceration in the United States

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tags: race relations, Joe Biden, Incarceration



Joe Biden this weekend continued to draw attention to the complicated role he has played in the country’s history of race relations. On Thursday night, he drew criticism when he was asked what Americans can do about the legacy of slavery, and answered by suggesting parents put on a record player for kids, and that social workers should visit parents’ homes to teach them how to care for their children. He followed that by recounting on Sunday his run-in in the 1960s with a young gang leader named “Corn Pop,” a story that involved “the only white guy” at a city pool cutting him a 6-foot piece of chain to defend himself against the razor-wielding teen and his friends.

The politics of race relations have been a central part of Biden’s career, from his high-profile opposition to busing to his authoring of the 1994 Biden Crime Bill. When he talks about his criminal justice record on the campaign trail, he argues today that the focus on the ’94 bill is unfair, because the real rise in mass incarceration happened at the state level and was long underway by then.

Biden is correct that the surge began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s, but a closer look at his role reveals that it was Biden who was among the principal and earliest movers of the policy agenda that would become the war on drugs and mass incarceration, and he did so in the face of initial reluctance from none other than President Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan even vetoed a signature piece of Biden legislation, which he drafted with arch segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, to create a federal “drug czar.”

At the time, many Republicans were hesitant about increasing federal spending, and in fact looking for ways to slash the budget. Domestically, Reagan wanted to focus on cutting taxes and reducing social welfare spending, and had little interest in an expansive federal spending program geared toward building new prisons and hiring new police. Biden, on the other hand, was a key policy leader among both parties on the issue of expanding funding to states and municipalities for policing and prisons.

Read entire article at The Intercept

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