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Pete Buttigieg weighs in on 1994 crime bill: 'The bad outweighs the good'

Posted: 8:00 AM, May 24, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-24 12:00:32Z
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(CNN) -- Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said Thursday the "bad" caused by a controversial crime bill backed by Joe Biden "outweighs the good."

The South Bend, Indiana, mayor carefully answered questions about the political impact of the 1994 crime bill during a live interview with The Washington Post, saying Democrats who supported the bill -- like Biden -- would be held accountable through elections.

"That is what elections are for," Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg added: "I think the incarceration did so much harm that I would think that even those who were behind the '94 crime bill -- or at least many of them -- would do it differently if they had a chance to do it again."

Three 2020 Democratic candidates for President supported the crime bill that is now seen as making mass incarceration worse: Biden, then-Rep. Bernie Sanders and then-Rep. Jay Inslee. But Biden, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, played the largest role in the bill.

Then-President Bill Clinton signed into law an omnibus crime bill in 1994 that included the federal "three strikes" provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes.

Billl Clinton said in 2015 that he regretted the bill, admitting that it worsened the nation's criminal justice system by increasing prison sentences. His comments came amid Hillary Clinton's presidential run, during which her husband's support of the bill became a political issue for the former secretary of state.

Debate over the crime bill's lasting implications have already begun playing out on the 2020 campaign trail and it is expected to loom over the Democratic race in the coming months.

After Biden defended the bill -- "This idea that the crime bill created mass incarceration, it did not create mass incarceration," Biden said earlier this month in New Hampshire -- California Sen. Kamala Harris took issue with the former vice president's view.

After noting that she had a "great deal of respect" for Biden, Harris told reporters, "That 1994 crime bill, it did contribute to mass incarceration in our country. It encouraged and was the first time that we had a federal three strikes law. It funded the building of more prisons in the states."

She added: "So, I disagree, sadly."

Experts told CNN that it's difficult to assess how the 1994 bill contributed to mass incarceration because incarceration rates had been steadily rising since the early 1970s. But the experts also said federal policy and federal money -- including the 1994 crime bill -- do impact the way that states incarcerate.

Buttigieg, in a moment of levity, noted that he was a pre-teen in 1994.

"I wasn't there for the crime bill debate," he said. "I mean, I was there, but I was 12."

But the mayor added that "at least from the South Bend perspective, the bad outweighs the good" because the "bill contributed to mass incarceration in a country that is the most egregiously incarcerated in the world."

Buttigieg said the biggest impact of the crime bill could be the breaking up of families, especially those of color, and how that has affected children. He linked crime in South Bend to mass incarceration.

"If someone gets shot in a neighborhood in South Bend today, statistically it is almost always a young man of color and so, statistically often is the shooter, who was born... somewhere between 1994 and 2000," he said. "And when you look at the circumstances that lead to violence and other harms, you look at the kind of adverse childhood experiences that can set somebody back in life: exposure to violence is one, exposure to drug use is one, incarceration of a parent is one."

He continued: "So, the mass incarceration that may have felt in a knee-jerk way as a way to be tough on crime in the '90s is now one generation later being visited upon communities today through the absence of parents."

Earlier this year, Biden admitted that has made mistakes when it comes to criminal justice issues.

"I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried," Biden said at the National Action Network's Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Washington in January, months before he launched his campaign.

The other candidates who supported the bill have also had to explain their votes.

Inslee, during a CNN town hall in April, said he regrets his prior support.

"Listen, that was a situation where many Democrats, including myself, believed we needed some response to the epidemic of crime at the time," Inslee said. "But I will tell you this, if I knew then what I know now I would not have cast that vote. It has resulted in racial disparities in our system."

Sanders, unlike the others, has cautiously defended the vote , noting that he publicly spoke about his issues with the bill when it was being debated in 1994.

"I voted for that bill because it included the Violence Against Women's Act and it included a ban on assault weapon," Sanders told CNN in April. "Sometimes you have legislation which includes very good stuff and very bad stuff. ... That legislation included very bad stuff. I had to make the choice whether I voted to ban assault weapons, something that I promised the people of Vermont I would, and I also had to vote to make sure that we had a Violence Against Women provision in there."