Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said on Sunday that the work of former Vice President Joe Biden (D) in ramping up the war on drugs raise questions about whether he is up to the task of being president.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate discussed his primary campaign rival’s record during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” pointing out that Biden backed legislation as a senator that undermined civil rights and fueled mass incarceration, particularly of people of color.
“There’s a lot of his record, from busing to the 1994 crime bill,” Booker said. “I was in law school, when that was going on, when you saw African American men being arrested at rates that were unconscionable.”
“I came from Yale and Stanford, where people were using marijuana, using drugs, but lived in a country where there’s no difference between drug usage and drug selling between blacks and whites,” he said. “But African Americans are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated for those things.”
Biden’s involvement in writing and passing the 1994 crime bill, which increased penalties for drug-related offenses and codified other anti-drug policies, has been a key concern for criminal justice reform advocates. And while he’s acknowledged some of the consequences of the legislation, he continues to defend it.
“These are very typical, painful issues to the point now that, because of a lot of the legislation that Joe Biden endorsed, this war on drugs, which has been a war on people, we now have had a 500 percent increase in the prison population since 1980, overwhelmingly black and brown,” Booker said. “There’s more African Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850. These are real, painful, hurtful issues.”
The senator said the Democratic party needs “nominees that can speak to this in a way that heals, that brings people together, that rises us up, as a country, to not only deal with historic and systemic racism, but helps us to come together and deal with our common purpose and common cause.”
Based on Biden’s record and his seeming inability to grapple with it and make amends, he doesn’t seem like he’d be the nominee to get that done, Booker suggested.
“A lot of Democrats who were involved with the 1994 crime bill have spoken very openly and with vulnerability, talking about their mistakes. So that doesn’t, that doesn’t disqualify you,” the senator said. “But what we’ve seen, from the vice president, over the last month, is an inability to talk candidly about the mistakes he made, about things he could’ve done better, about how some of the decisions he made at the time, in difficult context, actually have resulted in really bad outcomes.”
“And right now, the vice president, to me, is not doing a good job at bringing folks together,” Booker argued. “In fact, he’s cause — and I’ve heard this from people all around the country. He’s causing a lot of frustration and even pain with his words.”
Booker has made criminal justice reform a cornerstone of his campaign, while at the same time introducing bold drug reform legislation in the Senate.
Last week, he filed a bill that would protect immigrants from being deported for cannabis. And the week before that, he unveiled a plan to commute the sentences of about 17,000 federal prisoners who are incarcerated for drug-related crimes, including about 11,000 cannabis convictions. Another bill Booker introduced, the Marijuana Justice Act, would deschedule cannabis and withhold federal funding from states that carry out prohibition enforcement in a racially discriminatory manner.
He appears comfortable taking his opponents to task on the issue, too. For example, Booker seemed to call out Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) in March for lightheartedly discussing her past marijuana use while people continue to sit behind bars for doing the same.
For her part, Harris also took hits at Biden during last week’s Democratic debate, knocking him for his opposition to federally mandating busing to aid in school desegregation. Notably, she has refrained from attacking Biden over his drug policy record, and that may be because of her own vulnerability to critiques as a former prosecutor who enforced punitive drug laws and for years opposed legalizing marijuana.
Biden seized on that during the debate. After being confronted about his busing record by Harris, he said, “if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor.”
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