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Why Trump keeps beating Joe over the head with the crime bill

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

On Nov. 18, 1993, then-Senator Joe Biden let it fly on the Senate floor. He lambasted the “predators on the streets” and “sociopaths” who were “beyond the pale,” and must be “cordoned off.” Biden punctuated his impassioned cheer of the Clinton Crime Bill up for Senate passage with race-tinged rhetoric about broken homes, family squalor and ignorance. The inference was he was talking about young Blacks.

Biden’s words that day keep coming back to haunt him like a hideous nightmare. Trump dredged it up again at the last presidential debate. Joe, Trump intoned, you branded young Blacks as “super-predators.” He then gleefully finger-pointed Biden as practically the Founding Father of the 1994 Crime Bill, the bill widely reviled as the single biggest cause of the mass prison incarceration of mostly young Blacks and Hispanics.

Biden, in defense, did the same two things that he’s done repeatedly every time he gets hit over the head by Trump and the GOP with his cheerleading of that bill. He denied that he called anyone “super-predators.” He didn’t, but his label of “predators on the streets” came darn close. It’s his second counter, though, that he hopes will take some of the sting out of his overexuberant tout of the bill a quarter-century ago. He calls it “a mistake,” and says times have changed. He spruces up some of the features of the bill, such as ramped up drug treatment and services, that he claims ownership of in the bill.

Biden pivots and rightly points out that the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the bill out of fear of violent crime and a drug plague hammering Blacks. He then does a quick fast-forward to cite his array of criminal justice system and police-reform-oriented proposals he’s put forth during the campaign.

It doesn’t change the past, but it’s part mea culpa and a bigger part hope that it gets Trump off his back and does no damage among Black voters on Nov. 3.

Trump, though, won’t go away on this. He senses a tiny opening with this that can be exploited to fuel the still very deep sting and resentment over the bill. There’s some cause for worry about that.

The bill shelled out $22 billion to the states and feds to hire more police and prosecutors, build new prisons and courts and establish crime commissions. It criminalized thousands, mostly Blacks and Latinos, for petty crimes and drug possession, ignited the biggest prison-police boom in U.S history, spurred dozens of states to adopt “three strikes” laws, led to the deadly rash of racial profiling cases and widened the gaping racial disparities in prison sentencing. The anti-crime legislative mania also tacitly encouraged more states to disenfranchise thousands of ex-felons.

Biden’s public pledge to change that takes the battle against crime in the direction that it should have gone even 20 years ago – putting massive resources into investment and repair in poor and minority communities, while committing to fight to end the blatant racial disparities in arrests, sentencing, imprisonment and the death penalty that have become the trademark of the criminal justice system.

However, the damage that the bill wreaked is done. And Trump knows the bitterness that it has caused among many Blacks. He can take the issue and twist and turn it around on Biden to the point of casting himself as some sort of Harriet Tubman liberator of Blacks from the shackle of mass incarceration. So, as Biden squirms on the crime bill, Trump parlays his threadbare record on criminal justice issues, which include nothing more than — after much arm-twisting — endorsing a Second Start and a handful of pardons of Black inmates.

The challenge, then, is not to hold Biden’s feet to the fire for a policy from the past that’s had bad consequences, but to hold him feet-to-the-flame to deliver on his pledge to push for meaningful criminal justice system reforms, and programs and initiatives to aid the urban poor once in the White House.

The crime bill, the good and the much larger bad of it, will forever remain part of Clinton’s legacy. Trump will cynically and calculatingly twist that odious history around and call Biden on the carpet for it, and hope that enough other Blacks do the same to dampen enthusiasm for him.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.