Elizabeth Warren Suggests She’d Repeal Biden’s 1994 Crime Bill

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) suggested in an interview Tuesday evening that she would seek the repeal of the 1994 crime bill—a historic though highly controversial measure tied closely to one of her closest competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination. 

It “needs to be changed, needs to be rolled back, needs to be repealed.” Warren said of the law, which has become widely bemoaned by criminal justice reform advocates for its tough-on-crime measures, harsh sentencing guidelines, and general encouragement of the war on drugs.

The Massachusetts Democrat made the announcement during a candidate question-and-answer session with Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the left-wing Working Families Party, as part of its presidential endorsement process. 

Mitchell began his final question of the broadcast by noting that there are movement organizations seeking to repeal the ’94 crime bill. “And so,” he asked, “I’d like you to respond to that. Would you support a repeal of the ’94 crime bill? And what is your plan for tackling mass incarceration?”

“I think the devastation from the ’94 crime bill has now been well-documented,” Warren responded. “And there are huge parts of that that need to be swept away. It was just wrong. And it needs to be changed, needs to be rolled back, needs to be repealed. But that’s not enough. There is now a problem within our criminal justice system that runs from the front, what we declare to be illegal, through the system that is a justice system that treats blacks and whites, Latinx and whites differently through the system.”

Warren concluded: “My commitment is that we build a criminal-justice system that is at least closer to the four words above the United States Supreme Court: “equal justice under law.” That should be our guiding principle and that should mean we develop an America, we develop a criminal-justice system that is more in line with our values and that is fairer to everyone.”

Warren’s answer was vague enough to render it unclear as to whether she was calling for a full repeal of the ’94 crime bill or merely major components of it. Her campaign did not comment on the record for this story. 

But her response still positions her apart from two of her fellow frontrunners in the 2020 Democratic race: former Vice President Joe Biden, who authored the legislation but has introduced a plan meant to reverse many of its main provisions, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who voted for the bill despite being critical of it. 

Though the law has been the subject of intense criticism for accelerating the war on drugs and providing states with funds for the construction of prisons, some Democrats have called on their party to tone down their criticisms, noting that the bill also included money for community programs, an assault weapons ban, and the Violence Against Women Act. 

“I would encourage [Biden] to speak out about it and Bernie Sanders, too. Both of them ought to lean into this,” Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the third-ranking House Democrat, told The Daily Beast in May. 

Warren’s comments don’t address precisely how she’d tackle the law’s more progressive measures, which have become either standard Democratic policy or renewed policy pursuits. But at the end of 2018, the senator called attention to the expiration of the Violence Against Women Act due to the government shutdown (it was later reauthorized this year). And a reinstitution of the assault-weapons ban is part of a broader gun proposal that Warren recently unveiled. The senator voted for the First Step Act—the Trump era criminal justice reform measure that eased the ’94 bill’s infamous three-strikes rule

Warren’s larger approach to criminal justice reform mirrors the approaches of some of her primary competitors. She has called for ending mandatory minimum sentencing, advocated for eliminating private prisons, and called for legalizing marijuana and expunging records for marijuana crimes. 

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