Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has faced criticism from liberals for spearheading a 1994 law when he was a senator that cracked down on criminals, announced a proposal Tuesday that would eliminate the death penalty and embrace other changes at odds with that earlier legislation.
The Democratic presidential candidate would aim to pass legislation to abolish the death penalty at the federal level and offer incentives to states to follow suit, his new plan says. Convicted criminals who would face execution under current law would instead be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Biden's plan also would decriminalize marijuana and expunge past cannabis-related convictions; end the disparity between sentences for powder and crack cocaine; and do away with all incarceration for drug use alone. In addition, it would create a $20 billion grant program to spur states to move from incarceration to crime prevention and eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences.
Attitudes about race and criminal justice have changed significantly over the years in both parties, partly as a result of decreasing crime rates. Democrats in particular have moved sharply away from ideas that give greater powers to the police and prosecutors, instead committing to addressing inequities that they say have damaged minority communities.
The release of Biden's criminal justice plan comes about a week before the next round of televised Democratic primary debates, when his record is expected to come under renewed scrutiny. His support for the 1994 crime bill has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats, who argue that it led to mass incarceration and tilted the system unfairly against African Americans.
Biden's criminal justice platform will face an especially important test in black communities. He is seeking to appeal strongly to African Americans, whose votes are expected to heavily influence which candidate the party nominates to take on President Donald Trump. Biden is popular in the black community, but his previous support for tough-on-crime policies could be a vulnerability there.
For Biden, a longtime advocate of capital punishment, the decision to oppose the death penalty represents a particularly notable change. The former senator from Delaware gave a speech in 1992 in which he boasted that a crime bill he helped draft would provide "53 death penalty offenses."
When critics said the legislation was too soft, he added sarcastically, "Weak as can be, you know? We do everything but hang people for jaywalking in this bill."
Biden's new plan states that "we need to confront racial and income-based disparities in our justice system and eliminate overly harsh sentencing for non-violent crimes." To that end, it proposes extending the power of the Justice Department to attack systemic misconduct in police departments and prosecutors' offices.
Biden's proposal also calls for ending cash bail and terminating the federal government's use of private prisons. And it includes a provision to ensure that people who are imprisoned are treated humanely and that women in custody are provided health-care protections.
The plan would invest $1 billion annually in juvenile justice reform. It also would seek to give states incentives to stop incarcerating minors.
It's unclear how Democratic voters will view Biden's plan, and how they will weigh it against the tough-on-crime positions he has held in the past.
Already, opponents and critics have pounced on his criminal justice record, including his assertion that the 1994 law did not lead to mass incarceration, despite such provisions as a "three strikes" measure dictating long sentences if a convict has three offenses, even relatively minor ones.
“I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Joe Biden, but I disagree with him,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a rival candidate, said earlier this year. “That crime bill - that 1994 crime bill - it did contribute to mass incarceration in our country. It encouraged and was the first time that we had a federal three-strikes law. It funded the building of more prisons in the states.”