clock menu more-arrow no yes

A 1994 law Joe Biden wrote put these 4 men on death row

Biden sponsored a bill that expanded death penalty-eligible crimes. He’s now trying to undo his “tough on crime” legacy.

Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden participates in a Presidential Candidates Forum at the NAACP 110th National Convention on July 24, 2019, in Detroit.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A few hours after the Trump administration announced it was bringing back federal executions, former vice president and 2020 candidate Joe Biden had a single message: abolish the death penalty.

“Because we can’t ensure that we get these cases right every time, we must eliminate the death penalty,” he tweeted.

In criticizing these federal executions, Biden is fighting a monster he helped create.

On Thursday, US Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal government would resume executions for the first time in nearly two decades, scheduling execution dates for five inmates who have been convicted of murder and other crimes.

Several 2020 candidates swiftly criticized the government for its decision, which isn’t surprising considering all candidates but Montana Gov. Steve Bullock are opposed to the death penalty. Biden, too, joined the crowd to call for the abolishment of the death penalty.

Four of the five prisoners are eligible for federal executions because of the 1994 crime law Biden wrote and shepherded to passage while he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The federal death penalty was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. When it was reinstated in 1988, only those convicted of murder in federal court while engaging in containing criminal enterprise were eligible for the death penalty.

The 1994 crime law changed that. Among the law’s many provisions was the Federal Death Penalty Act, which expanded federal law to make 60 crimes, including drug crimes that do not involve homicide, eligible for the death penalty. Crimes could fall under three broad categories: homicide offenses, espionage and treason, and non-homicidal narcotics offenses.

Because the four prisoners were convicted after 1994, they received the death penalty under the updated crime law

These four prisoners, all of whom were convicted after 1994, were not convicted of murder while engaged in a criminal enterprise — therefore, they would not have been eligible for the death penalty if not for the 1994 anti-crime bill.

The 1994 crime law was an attempt to establish Democrats as the “tough on crime” party at a time when crime was high.

“Let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” Biden had said at the time. “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties.”

Biden’s campaign highlighted that he also supported funding for prevention programs in the bill, which was necessary to tackle the root of the problem, though not as popular among Republicans. Yet the bill is not remembered kindly by criminal justice activists, who say it was ineffective and unfairly targeted black and brown men. As criticism has mounted, Biden, too, has acknowledged that his 1994 bill wasn’t perfect.

“I haven’t always been right,” he said in January of his criminal justice record. “I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”

Now Biden is trying to undo his legacy. On Tuesday, the presidential candidate revealed his criminal justice reform plan — one of the most comprehensive ones to come out of the 2020 cycle so far. He tackles multiple issues, such as decriminalizing marijuana, reforming the police, and establishing a $20 billion grant to encourage states to reduce incarceration and crime.

Most notable may be his change of heart on the death penalty: Despite his long support of capital punishment, Biden said on Tuesday that he would abolish the death penalty at the federal level and incentivize states to follow suit.

As Vox’s German Lopez notes, this is an opportunity for Biden to show voters he can change with time:

For Biden, then, his criminal justice plan isn’t just a chance to line up with the preferences of most Democratic voters. It’s also an opportunity to try to make up for the mistakes of his past.