WASHINGTON — As a presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has often defended his vote for a controversial 1994 crime bill as a hold-your-nose compromise that included measures popular within the Democratic Party, such as a ban on assault weapons. As a result, Sanders’ support for the massive anti-crime package hasn’t come under the same level of scrutiny that has at times stuck to other Democratic candidates.
But an NBC News review of his past statements shows that Sanders also backed some of the legislation’s key get-tough-on-crime provisions, which he now says “created a very broken system,” — a part of his public record that may surprise some Sanders supporters.
Sanders was a member of the House of Representatives at the time and said he had strong objections to parts of the bill, mainly its death penalty expansion and lack of investment in crime prevention. And he fought to water down harsher sentencing provisions that came out of legislation then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden championed in the Senate.
But he also declared it to be a good compromise at a time when the nation faced a national crack cocaine epidemic and increasing violent crime, including surging homicide rates.
He voted in favor of at least one amendment allocating more money for prison funding, though 49 Democrats voted against it, including now Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the current House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler of New York. The amendment gave $10.5 billion more in grants to states for prison construction, a feature that remains one of the bill’s most contentious legacies 25 years later.
“On balance, its positive initiatives to control crime outweigh the negatives,” Sanders said in an August 11, 1994 speech on the House floor, according to the congressional record. Eleven days later, Sanders was quoted on the front page of the Burlington Free Press calling it "a step forward for Vermont and for the nation in addressing the horrendous problem with crime and violence.”
On the issues surrounding criminal justice reform in the current campaign, frontrunner Joe Biden has received the most attention from critics for having championed the 1994 bill as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. In the 2016 campaign, it was Hillary Clinton who bore the brunt of activists’ anger for publicly supporting the bill as First Lady.
While Sanders has so far largely avoided scrutiny for voting like most other Democrats at the time, “he’s definitely not pure on this,” says Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who’s worked on presidential campaigns but is not aligned with any current candidate.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based research and advocacy group, said Sanders’ past public statements in support of the broader bill haven’t “gotten much attention and I don’t think he’s (Sanders) had to answer for it so far.”
Mauer stressed: “There’s still a distinction between Biden and Hillary actively campaigning for it and playing a major role in it versus Bernie and many of the other members who voted for it.”
Sanders struggled to gain traction with African American voters during his 2016 campaign, something that continues today. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton University’s African American Studies Department, told NBC News that Sanders would benefit from a more direct conversation with the community.
“Senator Sanders has to give an account of his overall view, not only with regards to the crime bill, but an overall account of the way in which crime was used as a political tool during that period,” he said.
In 2016, Clinton was repeatedly pressed to apologize for her support for the law, with protesters and hecklers accusing her and her husband of helping to destroy black communities.
This year, some notable Sanders supporters have begun to attack Biden, who helped draft the bill, in the same way.
“Joe Biden has many absolutely gross moments where he fought for mass incarceration,” said Shaun King, a civil rights activist with over 1 million Twitter followers who introduced Sanders at his campaign kickoff.
Since he began running for president four years ago, Sanders has defended his vote by arguing that he had little choice but to support it because it included the Violence Against Women Act and the assault weapons ban. “I could see if I had voted against the bill, you know, there would be 30-second ads saying, Bernie Sanders didn't vote to ban assault weapons, didn't support women in the fight against domestic violence,” Sanders said on MSNBC in April of 2016.
His campaign says Sanders cast a number of compromise votes, including on prison construction, in an effort to “strip out” harsher language that expanded the crimes for which individuals could be sentenced. And that’s a critical distinction with Biden, who touted his support for longer jail time, including life in prison, for major drug dealers.
For Clinton, the legislation was a significant liability with younger African American voters in particular who said its focus on punishment and imprisonment over rehabilitation and prevention sparked a mass incarceration epidemic that’s devastated communities of color. The U.S. has become the world’s leader in per-capita incarceration rates, with a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years even as crime rates have remained relatively stable, according to the Sentencing Project
Clinton still garnered an overwhelming majority of the black vote in her primary campaign against Sanders but black turnout decreased 7 percentage points nationwide from 2012 in the general election. Early 2020 polling gives Biden a decisive advantage among black voters — a recent online Economist/YouGov Poll found Biden getting the support of 38 percent of black voters, compared to 13 percent for Sanders.
In his Aug. 11, 1994 floor speech, Sanders singled out the bill’s domestic violence funding as “perhaps most important to me.” And, in a separate speech days later, Sanders stressed the importance of investing in African American communities: “I would prefer to spend a few hundred million dollars on a program which keeps kids from turning to crime than a hundred times more money keeping those same young persons in jail,” he said.
Still, many others, including Biden, also spoke about the need for investing in prevention. Like them, Sanders also supported the bill’s other measures designed to crack down on crime. As recently as 2006, Sanders’ Senate campaign website cited his vote as the top example of his commitment to “tough on crime legislation.”
In that 1994 floor speech, Sanders also touted $44 million in new funding in his state for 500 new police officers and “drug and crime enforcement” in addition to $1.2 million for a variety of children’s programs. "It is absolutely appropriate that the Federal Government play an increased role in helping our communities address the crime problem,” said.
His campaign stressed that, in contrast to other lawmakers at the time like Biden, Sanders has never talked about youth convicted of minor drug offenses “in a punitive way.” For instance, in 2016, Clinton was dogged for her 1996 comments as First Lady in which she referred to some youth gangs connected to drug cartels as “super predators.”
While the vote is now highly controversial, at the time a number of black pastors and mayors voted for it. So did a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, now the third-ranking House Democrat.
"In 1994, I voted for the crime bill!” Clyburn told NPR in an interview this month. The divide over the crime bill “is not real. Not with black people,” he said, citing Biden’s strong support from black voters in his state.