The left has cowed him into renouncing antidrug and sentencing laws that benefit black communities.
Even before announcing that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden was busy apologizing. At a Martin Luther King Day speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Mr. Biden said “I haven’t always been right” about criminal justice and “white America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”
Not long ago Mr. Biden publicly defended his role in shaping the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which funded the hiring of more cops and encouraged more “truth in sentencing” by requiring that prisoners actually serve the majority of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole. That law, Barack Obama’s vice president said in 2016, “restored American cities.” Mr. Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1994, reiterated that view in his 2017 memoir.
Mr. Biden’s change of tune is predictable, given his party’s hard left turn on criminal justice and many other issues. But the left’s central claim—that the U.S. overincarcerates—doesn’t hold up, and those pushing decarceration often understate or ignore the downsides of policies that would result in more serious criminals walking the streets.
That would have a disparate racial impact. Left-wing reform advocates claim the justice system punishes blacks disproportionately, but black communities also suffer the harshest consequences from crime. Crimes committed by released convicts would affect many more black victims than white ones. Instead of apologizing, Mr. Biden should stand by the proactive policing and tougher incarceration practices that helped lower the crime rate after it peaked in the early ’90s.
Another sin for which Mr. Biden is now seemingly repenting is his vote for the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the widely reviled sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Michelle Alexander cites the law as key evidence of “systemic racism” in her 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Never mind that the 1986 law was co-sponsored in the House by 16 of the 19 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, or that drug prohibition isn’t driving “mass incarceration.” Most drug-possession offenders (59%) serve less than one year in prison. The vast majority (76.4%) of state prisoners, who account for about 90% of all prisoners, are in for violent felonies (54.5%), property-related ones (18%), or weapons-related ones (3.9%). Only 15.2% are in state prison primarily for drug offenses.
Criminal-justice reformers often overlook that the 1980s crackdown on drug crimes was aimed at reducing the violence surrounding the drug trade. Escalating the war on drugs was a way to root out criminals who were often involved in serious violent and property crimes. The relationship between drugs and other crime holds today: More than three quarters of released drug offenders get rearrested for a nondrug crime.
The justice system is far less punitive than the left implies. Justice Department studies from 2000-09 show that only about 40% of state felony convictions result in a prison sentence. And the data on time served indicate that there’s less “truth in sentencing” than critics of the 1994 crime bill would have you believe. State prisoners released in 2016 served 46% of their maximum sentence on average, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. One-fifth of murderers and 57% of sexual assailants served less than five years; and nearly 40% of all released state prisoners served less than one year behind bars.
Keep in mind that when these criminals get out, the vast majority go on to reoffend. Another BJS study tracked a cohort of more than 400,000 state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005. Within three years, 68% were arrested for a new offense. That number went up to 79% by year six, and 83% by year nine.
You won’t hear it from Joe Biden these days, but incarceration prevents crimes. Putting fewer criminals behind bars, and letting more out sooner than we already do, is a recipe for more serious crime, which usually is committed by repeat offenders.
Examples abound. The University of Chicago Crime Lab found that those convicted of homicides or shootings in 2015-16 in Chicago had an average of 12 prior arrests. In 2017 Baltimore police identified 118 murder suspects. They had an average of 9.3 prior arrests, and 35.6% committed the alleged offense while on probation or parole. A BJS report on violent felons convicted in America’s 75 largest counties over a 12-year period found that 56% had at least one prior conviction, and 37% of those convicts committed the offense while on probation, parole, or after being released pending disposition of a prior case.
The victims of these serious violent crimes are disproportionately black. This disparity is most stark on homicide. Though black men constitute about 7% of the population, they accounted for 45% of America’s 15,129 homicide victims in 2017.
A BJS study of homicides committed from 1980 to 2008 found that the victimization rate for blacks was six times as high as for whites. The offending rate was almost eight times as high, and still is today. That disparity has meant that black America has been the primary beneficiary of the decline in crime that began in the early 1990s. In his 2018 book, “Uneasy Peace,” sociologist Patrick Sharkey shows that “the impact of the decline in homicide on the life expectancy of black men is roughly equivalent to the impact of eliminating obesity altogether.”
Mr. Biden’s critics seem to have forgotten the disproportionate impact that violent crime had on black families—and Mr. Biden is now trying his best to forget, too. But frustration with the scourge of crime in the ’80s and ’90s drove support for tough-on-crime measures in the black community as much as among white senators. Mr. Biden stood withblack Americans, not against them, when he supported those measures.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal