In ad blasting Biden for 1994 crime bill, Trump undermines law and order case
Originally published in the Washington Examiner
A new Trump campaign commercial makes an engaging pitch for support from black Americans, but it repeats an attack against opponent Joe Biden that is flagrantly inaccurate and egregiously hypocritical.
The ad begins with an attractive black couple saying President Trump’s tenure has been beneficial for their business. So far, so good. The ad pivots, though, to an attack on the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped negotiate while chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The claims in the ad are just plain false.
“Joe Biden wrote the crime bill,” it says. (No, he didn’t, but he did help oversee its legislative progress.) “Hundreds of thousands of black Americans were put in jail for minor offenses.” As those words cross the screen, the wife in the ad says that “the one thing Joe Biden has done in 47 years in Washington, D.C., has made it difficult for black people.”
Every element of that portion of the commercial is wrong. It makes the common but mistaken assumption that the 1994 bill cracked down hard on low-level drug-possession offenses and the like, and that blacks disproportionately suffered.
“The 1994 Crime Bill did not and is not driving so-called ‘mass incarceration,’” said Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow specializing in criminal justice issues at the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute. “Most of that law’s provisions applied to violent and sexual offenses at the federal level and did not impact federal drug offenses or state law … More than 99.9% of drug-related offenders are sentenced for trafficking [significant drug dealing], not possession, and a quarter of them are foreigners running drug operations or smuggling narcotics.”
The statistics overwhelmingly bear that out. Yes, federal incarceration has grown from 83,000 in 1995 to 182,000 today, but the vast bulk of the increase in federal incarceration has come for either weapons offenses, immigration-related crimes, white-collar crimes, sex crimes, or trafficking. In fact, of those 182,000 federal inmates today, a grand total of 247, barely more than a tenth of a single percent, are there for mere possession of illegal narcotics.
As for the advertisement’s claim about black Americans being particularly harmed by the 1994 bill, that’s just not true. While blacks still make up a significantly greater share of the prison population than of the U.S. population as a whole, the percentage of black inmates to total inmates has dropped substantially in the past 25 years. The percentage of white prisoners has increased, and that of Hispanics has jumped significantly. And, to whatever extent federal law even indirectly affects state imprisonment practices, the trend of combined federal and state imprisonment of blacks is downward as well. I don’t have the following particular statistic from 1995 to 2000, but since the turn of the century, the imprisonment rate among black women has dropped 47% and that among black men has fallen by 22%.
Again, the reason these results don’t match the ad’s claims is that the bill itself wasn’t even remotely aimed at low-level offenders. Its main provisions for federal criminal law increased penalties only for major crimes, while most of the rest of the bill provided funding, equipment, and training for better local, community-based policing. It defies not just statistics but logic to say that the bill imprisoned “hundreds of thousands of black Americans … for minor offenses.”
Moreover, while the bill was far from perfect, it was a huge success in its major aim, which was to catalyze a nationwide crackdown on violent crime. Perhaps other cultural trends aided the effects, but the simple fact is that the crime rate nationally began a precipitous decline just as the 1994 crime bill began being implemented. Whereas violent crime rates had risen 379% in three previous decades, those rates fell by nearly 50% in the ensuing decades.
That’s why the Trump commercial is so hypocritical. For months, Trump has been running as the candidate who supposedly is a far tougher defender of law and order than the supposedly weak-on-crime Biden. Yet now, Trump’s campaign blasts Biden for the one major piece of bipartisan crime legislation that Biden played a somewhat leading role in crafting — even though that law succeeded in cutting violent crime.
So, which is it, Mr. President: Was it good to be tough on crime like Biden and others were in 1994, to great results, or is cracking down on crime a bad thing because it means too many people get imprisoned?
Either way, low-level offenders and blacks were neither targeted nor unduly punished. The ad, therefore, is poppycock.