Biden says drug users should not be jailed as he admits crime bill was a mistake at town hall

Democratic presidential candidate reflects on ‘86 and ’94 legislation that has faced criticism for exacerbating mass incarceration

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 16 October 2020 03:16 BST
Biden says drug users should not be jailed as he admits crime bill was a mistake
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When asked whether it was a mistake to support a 1994 law that set harsher penalties for drug possession, Joe Biden agreed that it was, as he outlined a vision for community-driven police reform and stressed that drug users should be rehabilitated, not imprisoned.

“I don’t believe anyone should be going to drug courts for drug use,” the Democratic presidential candidate said during a town hall on ABC.

He has previously called his support for the legislation a “big mistake" during a January 2019 event before he announced his candidacy in the 2020 race.

Mr Biden defended elements of the legislation, pointing to its support from the Black caucus and Black mayors across the US.

He said things have "changed drastically" in the wake of the so-called crime bill, though he touted its support from black lawmakers and the inclusion of the Violence Against Women Act.

His campaign clarified that Mr Biden believed it was a mistake to support the 1986 crime bill, which included mandatory minimums for drug crimes.

“But here’s where the mistake came,” he said of the 1994 law. "The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally.”

The former vice president, who in the 1990s authored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act while a US senator from Delaware, said people with records for marijuana possession should have their records cleared and that the US should instead build “rehab centres to have people housed."

He also proposed a “national study group” to bring together police representatives and community leaders from Black communities to reform law enforcement.

“We shouldn’t be defunding police officers,” he said. "We should be mandating the things that we should be doing within police departments.”

Asked by moderator George Stephanopoulos whether Mr Biden still believes that more police means less crime, he said: “Yes, if in fact they're involved in community policing and not jump squads.”

The law, on the heels of “war on drugs” rhetoric and surge in crack cocaine use, has been criticised as a harbinger of mass incarceration over the last three decades, resulting in harsh penalties and sentencing guidelines that have disproportionately impacted Black people.

Mr Biden, in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s town hall aired on NBC at the same time, gave lengthy answers to questions throughout the 90-minute event.

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