At a town hall in Iowa last January, Joe Biden boasted to the audience that he has "written every major piece of legislation relating to law enforcement in the last 35 years."
Six months later, in early July, his presidential campaign proposed an ambitious plan to dismantle many of the tough-on-crime policies he spearheaded during his decades in the Senate, including federal programs that provided military equipment to local police, posted cops in public schools, and expanded the prison system.
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Biden's history of aggressive legislation increasing the footprint of local cops has already caused problems for him with criminal justice reform advocates, a vocal part of the Democratic base. But his decision to reverse course on policies he supported over decades in the Senate reveals the leftward shift of the Democratic Party and his assessment that those long-held positions are now an obstacle to his election.
The "Unity Task Force Recommendations," a list of proposals drafted by the Biden campaign's joint task force with Bernie Sanders and other progressive leaders, takes aim at policies the candidate has already renounced, including sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine users that have been blamed for the disproportionate number of black people in federal prison.
But the document, published July 8, also offers scathing criticism of Biden-backed policies and the overall U.S. law enforcement system that Biden claimed to have shaped during his decades in public office.
"We need to overhaul the criminal justice system from top to bottom," the task force recommendations say. "Our system has criminalized poverty, overpoliced and underserved Black and brown communities, and cut public services."
The plan calls to limit the sale of military equipment to state and local police departments. Criminal justice reform advocates trace the "militarization" of state and local police back to the federal COPS grant program authorized in the 1994 crime bill, which was written by Biden.
"Federal funds for policing through programs such as COPS grants funded new equipment and technologies purchased by local police forces, resulting in the escalation of SWAT teams and other paramilitary units—ultimately increasing the presence of military grade weapons and surveillance systems in our most vulnerable communities," wrote a coalition of progressive activist groups in a letter to House Judiciary chairman Jerrold Nadler last month.
Biden went on to vote for a 1997 defense bill that created a federal agency tasked with transferring surplus military equipment to police departments. In 2008, he sponsored a bill to expand a federal program that provided counterterrorism technology and equipment to local law enforcement.
The Biden campaign task force’s new proposal is a sharp contrast to bellicose statements the candidate has made over the years about the "war on crime." In 1989, Biden argued that police needed a massive influx of federal funding to launch a well-funded "D-Day" against criminals.
"What we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam—a war fought on the cheap and destined for stalemate and human tragedy," then-senator Biden said.
While promoting his crime bill in 1990, Biden compared police to "soldiers" in a war zone.
"My crime bill is loaded with money for more police and drug agents—soldiers we need to fight the war on crime today," he said.
The new Biden task force document also calls for dismantling "the school-to-prison pipeline that sees children of color arrested in their classrooms for misbehavior that ought to be handled in the principal’s office, and build a school to opportunity pipeline instead."
The proposal conflicts with prior legislation sponsored by Biden, including a 2007 bill to increase the number of school-based police officers, also known as "resource officers."
The bill authorized "grants to hire school resource officers and to establish school-based partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and local school systems to combat crime, gangs, drug activities, and other problems in and around elementary and secondary schools."
According to critics, "resource officers" are a key component of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline decried in the Biden unity committee’s plan.
"Though these police are often referred to as ‘school resource officers,' their legal power and attending actions reveal that this designation only serves to mask that their presence has transformed schools into another site of concentrated policing," said the American Civil Liberties Union. "Such policing marks the start of the school-to-prison pipeline—the entry point to the criminal justice system for too many kids—and fuels mass incarceration."
The Biden campaign proposal also marks a notable departure from his previous statements on juvenile criminals, whom he has referred to as future "predators" who were raised without consciences.
"The significant number of the children who are committing these crimes have no parents and they are predators who are wandering the streets," Biden said in a 1993 Senate floor speech. "We find, for example, in the city of New York, there are 175,000 drug-addicted children under the age of 17 who have no mother, no father, who, in fact, commit on average 200 crimes a year, and there’s going to be no one to put in jail or have community service for except these individuals."
In another speech that year, Biden warned that the government must address the "cadre of young people, tens of thousands of them, born out of wedlock without parents, without supervision, without any structure, without any conscience developing."
"We should focus on them now, not out of a liberal instinct for love, brother and humanity—although I think that’s a good instinct—but for simple pragmatic reasons," he added. "If we don't, they will or a portion of them will become the predators 15 years from now."
Biden said those who grow up to become predators should be removed from society "to protect my family and yours from them."
"They are beyond the pale, many of those people. Beyond the pale," said Biden. "It is a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society. And the truth is, we don’t very well know how to rehabilitate them at that point. That is the sad truth."