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Bernie Sanders said country needed more jails and 'tougher' penalties in certain cases in 1994 remarks backing crime bill

Posted January 26, 2020 10:58 a.m. EST

— Bernie Sanders said in 1994 that he agreed the country needed "some more jails" and that it must be "tougher in certain instances" on crime.

The then-congressman from Vermont made the comments during a news conference in which he explained his support for the now-controversial 1994 crime bill. His remarks, video of which was obtained by CNN's KFile from CCTV-Center for Media & Democracy, a Vermont public access station, sheds light on Sanders' support of the now more controversial elements of the bill, and his reservations about other aspects.

Sanders more recently has described the bill as "terrible" and says he is sorry he voted for it, but his view at the time was that although the bill "isn't perfect," he viewed it as "a major step forward in controlling and preventing crime."

"If you look at the issue of prevention versus punishment, if you like, I would've put more effort on prevention," said Sanders in 1994.

"If you keep kids in school, if you get jobs for young people, in the long run, not only do you prevent crime, but you save the taxpayers substantial sums of money," Sanders said, "But rather invest in education and keeping kids in school and making college opportunity a realistic goal for millions of young people rather than necessarily building one more jail. Yeah. I think I would have gone the other way."

"On the other hand, do I think we need some more jails? Yup. Do I think we have to get tougher in certain instances? Yes, I do," Sanders said. "So what you have is a balance here. You have more money going to law enforcement, more money going into jails. You have, on the other hand, significant sums of money going into prevention, beginning to allow us to deal with violence against women, child abuse and other very serious problems," Sanders said.

Mike Casca, the campaign communications director for Sanders, on Sunday attacked Biden for his role in the tough-on-crime legislation.

"Bernie Sanders was consistently advocating that the Biden approach was coming at the expense of jobs and education needed to keep an entire generation of kids out of jail," Casca told CNN.

Though widely supported at the time, the 1994 law has since faced criticism from criminal justice activists for contributing to an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately affected communities of color.

Most of that criticism has been directed at fellow presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, a major architect of the legislation, while Sanders' support hasn't been nearly as scrutinized in the 2020 Democratic presidential race.

Unlike Biden, Sanders was not a major architect of the bill. In the House, Sanders voted to mitigate some of the tough-on-crime provisions, including voting against a provision creating mandatory minimum sentencing for use of a gun in violent crimes or drug offenses, which ultimately passed, and repeatedly against the death penalty provisions.

And even though he would vote in support of the final passage of the bill, Sanders said that "more and more people will be in jail unless we begin to deal with the causes of crime." He also expressed reluctance to vote for a bill if it was stripped of prevention programs.

The bill passed the House with 188 Democrats voting in favor and 64 voting against.

Asked about his vote by CNN's Jake Tapper last July, Sanders said he was "not happy I voted for a terrible bill, but I am happy that I was honest with the people of my state," noting that he campaigned in Vermont for banning assault weapons, which was included in the bill.

In 2016, Sanders' campaign defended his record on the bill saying he opposed "the mass incarceration and death penalty provisions in the bill."

The campaign pointed to a floor speech in April 1994 where he said "all the jails in the world" would not solve the what he implied were the root causes of crime, poverty and lack of education. His campaign said he supported the bill because of its ban on assault weapons and the Violence Against Women Act. Something Sanders himself told CNN's Brooke Baldwin in April of 2019.

Yet in August 1994, Sanders, while noting the bill was not perfect, offered a broader defense of the bill and said it was a bill that "should be supported" with a two-pronged approach of "increased law enforcement" and increased prevention.

"The approach that this bill takes, in general, which I believe can work well, is based on a two pronged approach to crime," Sanders said. "When I was mayor, we significantly expanded our police force and we provided stronger law enforcement, and at the same time, we developed a number of crime prevention programs. Programs designed to give young people especially ... the opportunity to do something else with their lives rather than turn to drugs and self-destruction and crime."

"This legislation is not perfect. Let's be clear about it," he added. "But at a time when the citizens of this country are crying out for the government to begin addressing the crisis of crime, there is no question in my mind that this bill, in a dozen different ways, is a major step forward in controlling and preventing crime. It is a bill that should be supported."

Sanders called the bill "a step forward" in providing "more enforcement, more police officers, more prevention program." He said that providing more policing and "stiffening penalties" against violent criminals was "equally important" to putting money toward preventing crime

"Number one, simply and straightforwardly, we need more cops on the beat," Sanders said, adding that the bill would provide Vermont $43 million to hire new police officers. "The state of Vermont needs more police officers. We need more community policing. We need more police protection in our most rural areas, and this legislation will play a significant role in allowing that to happen."

"Number two, equally importantly," Sanders said. "While this legislation is very strong on increasing police protection -- on stiffening penalties against criminals so that violent offenders remain behind bars where they should be -- it also provides a significant sum of money to prevent crime."

"To keep our young people off of drugs, to stop the tragedy of violence against women before it happens, to provide alternatives so that young people do not have to turn to gangs to turn to crime," he continued. "In other words, there is a significant sum of money which says let us try to get to the root causes of crime rather than just put people behind bars."

Later, Sanders also noted, though he thought it was appropriate for the federal government to ban certain times of semi-automatic weapons, he did not think it would have a large impact on violent crime.

"I do not believe that this action is going to have some magical and profound impact on violent crime. It is not," he added. "May it have some impact in taking away some very, very dangerous weapons from drug dealers and people who are outgunning our police officers right now. It may have some impact, and that's my view."

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