Joe Biden tells New Hampshire voter he opposed Three Strikes provisions in the federal crime bill, but the truth is more complicated

Former VP Joe Biden was in New Hampshire and was asked by an ACLU activist about the 1994 federal crime bill, which he authored. He mostly defended the law, but argued he did oppose components of it:

Biden also said, “We should not be putting people in prison for drug offenses,” praised New Hampshire for getting rid of the death penalty, and offered a brief defense of the 1994 crime bill (officially known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), once considered a bipartisan achievement and now the source of deep and bipartisan criticism 25 years later. “When I wrote the crime bill, which you’ve been conditioned to say is a bad bill,” Biden said, “there’s only one provision that had to do with mandatory sentences that I opposed, and that was a thing called the ‘three strikes and you’re out,’ which I thought was a mistake, but had a lot of other good things in the bill.” He then went on to talk about drug courts.

Notice that Biden says he opposed the three strikes provision. But the truth is more complicated. In an interview with Katie Couric in 1994, Biden explained that he does support some three strikes provisions, if they are limited to violent crimes.

COURIC: You’re quoted in–in the recent issue of Time magazine as saying this whole idea of three strikes and you’re out is wacko. I understand you’ve had a change of heart. Why?

Sen. BIDEN: No, I haven’t had no change of heart. The context of that question that was asked is, `Did I like some of the provisions that were passed?’ There were two provisions passed in the crime bill that said if there were non-violent crimes, in three strikes you’d be out. In the–the–what I support is a three strikes and you’re out, if in fact, they’re very violent crimes–arson, rape, murder, manslaughter. Three strikes in those areas, and you should be out. Six percent of the most violent felons in America commit the vast majority of the crimes in America, and we should put those people away for life.

COURIC: Do you think in some cases too wide a net is being cast…

Sen. BIDEN: Absolutely.

COURIC: …and too many crimes are being included?

Sen. BIDEN: Absolutely, positively.

There’s a–there–there’s a referendum that’s being sought on the California ballot by a gentleman named Mr. Reynolds. Now, he has a three strikes and you’re out provision, which makes sense. It’s very narrowly drawn, it says that–if defines what violent crimes are, it says it’s violent crimes against persons, they’re all crimes that carry heavy sentences with them.

But what you don’t want to do is have three strikes and you’re out when a 17-year-old kid snatches a purse, and pushes someone down, and then steals a car and the next thing gets in a barroom brawl and ends up in, you know, in an assault and battery. There’s three strikes, you shouldn’t be out for that. So, what we should focus on are three strikes, meaning serious felonies against a person that are violent. We should take those predators off the street. But the truth of the thing–the matter, Katie, is, if we do that federally, even if we pass the laws that are in the crime bill, like the Lott Amendment, which I supported, under the federal sentencing commission guidelines, we asked them, `How many people would that put in jail for life under the federal system?’ And the answer was 290, only 290. And there’s over 5-1/2 million felonies committed a year.

This is an important point because, depending on the year or the state, around half or a majority of felons are in prison for violent crimes.


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