President Donald Trump attacked Democratic nominee Joe Biden at tonight’s debate for his role in passing tough-on-crime legislation and supposedly calling black Americans “superpredators” years ago.
“I’m letting people out of jail now,” Trump said to Biden. “You’ve treated the black community as bad as anyone in the country. You called them superpredators and you’ve called them worse than that.”
Trump has previously attacked Joe Biden for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill, formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. It was Hillary Clinton, however, who infamously uttered the term “superpredators” back in 1996. (You can still find plenty of videos of floor speeches of then-Senator Biden railing against “predators” or generally demagoguing on the subject of violent crime.)
The rise of criminal justice reform as a major issue in politics has made the 1994 crime bill a liability for Biden, who has since apologized for his role in tough-on-crime legislation passed in the 1980s and ’90s by large bipartisan margins.
In a speech last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Biden said those bills “trapped an entire generation,” and that “it was a big mistake when it was made.”
This has also led Trump, in an attempt to cut into Biden’s support among black voters, to attack Biden for both being too harsh on crime in the past and not believing in “law and order” now.
However, the popular narrative about the ’94 crime bill isn’t correct. Fordham Law professor John Pfaff has argued persuasively that, though it was certainly a bad bill, it neither created mass incarceration—which was already chugging along by the 1990s—nor was a significant driver of imprisonment.
The bill created several draconian mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level and dangled grants for new prisons and new tough-on-crime laws for states, but mass incarceration is predominantly a state-level phenomenon.
“Its effect on crime was consistently hampered by the sheer size of state and local justice systems, diminishing any impact it might have made for good or for ill,” Pfaff wrote in a 2016 New York Times Op-Ed. “And in many ways, the debates over it are largely symbolic.”
There are plenty of other terrible criminal justice bills that Biden co-sponsored during his long tenure in the Senate, such as the massive expansion of civil asset forfeiture and the crackdowns on juvenile offenders. But in a “debate” that was little more than two candidates yelling over each other, there wasn’t much room for anything other than vague symbology.