By Amanda Becker
(Reuters) – U.S. Senator Kamala Harris said during a presidential campaign stop in New Hampshire on Wednesday that she disagreed with former Vice President Joe Biden, who said a day earlier that his Senate vote for a 1994 crime bill did not contribute to mass incarceration.
Harris, who previously served as the top prosecutor for San Francisco and then for California, said at a town hall that she has a “great deal of respect” for Biden but disagreed with him on this issue.
“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. And so I disagree, sadly,” Harris told reporters.
Biden was in New Hampshire earlier this week on his first swing through the early-voting state since he entered the field of more than 20 Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination.
During a Tuesday stop, Biden said: “This idea that the crime bill created mass incarceration, it did not create mass incarceration.” He conceded that the 1994 crime bill was not perfect, especially as it related to harsher sentences for crack versus powder cocaine, which disproportionately sent minorities to prison.
The 1994 crime bill, which was signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton, resurfaces frequently in Democratic politics as sentiments shift on how to best address crime.
The bill included $9 billion for the construction of federal prisons. It also included a “three strikes” provision, which required a mandatory life sentence for a person guilty of committing a severe, violent felony after two previous convictions.
Independent assessments have show it is difficult to isolate the bill’s impact. Crime rates in the United States had started to decline during the 1970s and continued to decline after the bill’s passage. Prison populations started to grow in the 1970s and continued to do so after the bill’s passage.
According to the nonpartisan Marshall Project, which tracks criminal justice issues: “The crime bill did not inaugurate the era of mass incarceration, but it certainly escalated the scale of its impact.”
Harris, who trails Biden in polls, has faced criticism of her own for criminal justice decisions she made as a state prosecutor, including defending California’s three strikes law in the state’s highest court and opposing a ballot measure to amend it, though she acknowledged it had flaws.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Leslie Adler)