South Carolina Mayor and Bloomberg Surrogate Says Sanders', Biden's Votes on Crime Bill 'Ushered in' Mass Incarceration

Steve Benjamin
Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, speaks during a session on how communities can use technology to grow and thrive at the U.S. Conference Of Mayors on June 8, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. Scott Eisen/Getty

Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and a campaign surrogate for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, previewed several lines of attack against Bloomberg's competitors at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Speaking alongside other surrogates to promote Bloomberg's appearance ahead of the Democratic Party's 10th primary debate in Charleston, Benjamin said that "Bernie Sanders voted for the [1990s] crime bill" and that "Joe Biden co-authored the crime bill."

"The crime bill, along with several other votes in the 80s, ushered in this period of mass incarceration," Benjamin said at the Belmond Charleston Place.

The bill he was referring to, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, was get-tough-on-crime umbrella legislation that aimed to crack down on gangs, among other provisions.

In recent months, Bloomberg had faced heightened scrutiny for overseeing a policy of stop-and-frisk during his tenure as New York's mayor. Critics contend that Bloomberg misunderstands the impact this policy had on the city's black and brown residents and has insufficiently atoned for its harms.

Benjamin also said during the press conference that it was important to nominate a candidate who has been "fully vetted" by the public.

Bloomberg's defenders have sought to recast the conversation about his campaign as one of electability, increasingly highlighting his desire to take on President Donald Trump in a head-to-head match-up.

The state's presidential primary is on Saturday.

As a member of Congress in the 1990s, Sanders did vote for the 1994 crime bill, and Joe Biden, then a U.S. senator, helped to author it.

Sanders explained his vote at the time as one emerging from a place of compromise, especially considering provisions in the bill that related to other, pressing policy issues.

"I have a number of serious problems with the crime bill, but one part of it that I vigorously support is the Violence Against Women Act," Sanders said on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1994. "We urgently need the $1.8 billion in this bill to combat the epidemic of violence against women on the streets and in the homes of America."

The federal assault weapons ban that existed from 1994 to 2004 was also enacted as part of this legislation. Sanders had earlier voted against a 1991 crime bill.

While Biden's record leans more punitive, he did object to some of the harsher proposals being considered during the crafting of the 1994 bill, including efforts to make repeated non-violent felonies subject to the severe three-strikes rule.

Experts say the 1994 crime bill in and of itself did not cause mass incarceration to accelerate. According to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the incarceration rate for black Americans rose by around 50 percent from 1985 to 1990. It rose by a little less than that from 1990 to 1995. And for the five years succeeding the bill's enactment, incarceration rates for black Americans barely budged upward, representing a substantial deceleration.

Though the bill toughened penalties for federal offenses, the vast majority of U.S. prisoners are convicted under state prosecutions, limiting the reach of the federal legislation. The bill did incentivize states to strengthen their own criminal codes. However, the impact of this provision was limited, research suggests.

Polling at the time also indicates the public was specifically concerned about the prevalence of crime. In a Gallup survey from January 1994, 37 percent of Americans said that crime was "the most important problem facing the country," a higher share than on any other issue surveyed.

South Carolina Mayor and Bloomberg Surrogate Says Sanders', Biden's Votes on Crime Bill 'Ushered in' Mass Incarceration | Politics