The Washington Post recounts former Vice President Joe Biden’s role in passing a 1986 federal law that treated crack cocaine as significantly worse than powder cocaine and disproportionately punished African Americans. At the time, black clergy members held vigils on street corners in New York City, calling cocaine a “new form of genocide.” Democrats charged that the Reagan administration was surrendering the fight. Biden, then a 44-year-old senator from Delaware, led the fight for the bill, which authorized new funding for drug treatment programs and stricter penalties for drug offenses.
Sixteen years after the bill’s passage, Biden disavowed the crack-powder provision, saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” quoting nuns who taught him as a child. His presidential campaign now calls the disparity in sentencing “a profound mistake” that he wants to reverse. One of his Democratic rivals, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, last week said that the law “inflicted immeasurable harm on black, brown, and low-income communities.” Booker is expected to raise the issue again before a national audience during this week’s televised debate. Biden’s criminal justice legislation “broadly served to push … policy to the right in response to a surge of violent crime,” the Post says. His policy positions “were mainstream for Democrats at the time, reflecting a political consensus around tough-on-crime policies during the crime wave that began in the 1970s and efforts by many in the party to assert a more centrist image.” Now, “He has a burden on him to explain,” says Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “He needs to say clearly, ‘Here is what I think I got right back then and what I got wrong, here is what I think today.’ . . . Otherwise, he’s going to litigate the past in a way I don’t think will be helpful to him.”