There’s a saying about accepting an apology that may never come in order to find peace. I’ve done that, accepting invisible apologies for a long time, from ex-boyfriends, from old friends who I felt wronged me—and from the politicians responsible for the infamous 1994 crime bill and the crime laws that preceded it.
Specifically, I had accepted that non-existent apology from Joe Biden, who authored the bill that President Bill Clinton signed and that led to my favorite uncle’s life sentence.
I knew Biden, who boasted when he was running for president in 2007 about the “Biden crime bill,” has expressed regret more recently over the bill’s impact on mass incarceration, and his 1980s votes for harsh mandatory drug sentences. I also knew he was vice president under the Obama administration—the same administration that commuted my uncle’s sentence in January of 2017, weeks before Donald Trump was sworn in as president. That means that instead of life, he will be eligible for early release in January of 2022, after 17 years of imprisonment.
But despite these forms of retribution, it still didn’t feel like enough. When Biden won the Democratic primary, I wondered how, as a staunch anti-Trumper, I’d find the will to check “yes” for a man who was complicit in destroying my family and so many others.
As grateful as I am to have a chance of getting my uncle back, a literal miracle for those in similar positions, I didn’t think I’d ever hear the man who wrote the bill say directly to us, the ones that his “tough-on-crime” votes and bills hurt, that he was wrong. That he got it wrong.
Except that during the presidential debate, I did.
Toward the end, moderator Kristen Welker, a Black woman, looked at Biden and asked him to address the people and families, the majority of them Black and brown, impacted by the bill he once stood by. My heart stopped. Was this it?
It was, or something close to it. He could have done the political thing that politicians do: explain why he did what he did. He could have taken the Trumpian route and denied having done it at all. He could have put the blame for the 1994 bill on Clinton. But instead, he took responsibility. Or so it appeared. He called his ’80s votes for harsher drug sentences a “mistake” and promised not to use prisons to punish people for addiction—and though he didn’t name his 1994 crime bill as one of those mistakes, for whatever reason it felt like enough.
My dad, my uncle’s big brother, texted me later that night, also moved by what he heard, asking me to clarify if he’d heard it right. “He said it was a mistake when he passed that bill?” he asked. I’d thought so too, though going over the transcript afterward he’d tried to separate the ’94 bill, which Trump had attacked him for authoring, from the votes he regretted in the 1980s to give harsher punishments for drug crimes. But still. Biden said that too many people had been imprisoned, and that that was a “mistake” he’d made and would set right. That was enough for me, and for my dad, too. “He knows he made a mistake,” my dad said.
It was 2005, at the end of the summer, when that mistake shattered my family as my uncle, Ruben Velez, who had just been released from jail for a prior drug offense and was ready for a fresh start, sat on the steps of his childhood home in North Philadelphia people-watching. A few yards away, a cocaine deal was in motion. At some point, the Philly PD raided the block, and in an instant, lives were changed forever. My uncle was pushed face down on the ground and then thrown into the back of a van. That’s what my father, who witnessed it all go down, told me.
But that doesn’t matter. Whether he was involved or not doesn’t matter, because my uncle, and thousands like him, were set up to fail from the start. A big part of the crime bill was the so-called “Three-Strike Rule” that made a third felony conviction into an automatic life sentence. Earlier, Biden had voted for harsh drug sentences. Together, these moves created a perfect storm, one my uncle got caught up in. Two years later after his arrest, a judge sentenced him to life in prison, a $12.5 million fine, and at least 10 years of supervised release. For allegedly selling drugs.
I was too young to get angry when it happened. You can’t get angry over what you don’t understand. But it didn’t take too long for me to learn. The anger came when I was in college and saw kids from the suburbs get away with selling the drugs I lost my uncle to. It came when I saw how easy it was for Americans of color and Black Americans in particular to lose their lives for the same offenses that get white ones a slap on the wrist.
It came when I saw a man get a three-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster because he was a student athlete and another get away with preying on pre-teen girls for years because he had money. The anger came as I watched terrible person after terrible person go free because of their skin color, or finances, or talent, while my uncle sat in jail for daring to go outside in the ‘hood on a summer night while a terrible law was in effect.
Knowing the ‘94 crime bill and Biden’s prior bills on crime would likely come up at the debate, like a far-off issue and not a policy that turned my uncle into a voice on a phone call instead of a real person in my life, I expected to feel that anger. But then Biden said what he said.
It wasn’t exactly an “I’m sorry.” His words don’t right the wrongs or take away the pain. I will never get the birthdays back that my uncle missed. Or the milestones he never got to witness. Families across this country are still hoping and praying they will be as lucky as mine, and have their loved one granted clemency or a commutation. He made no promises to help them if he were elected, and he will have to be held accountable for that. But after years of waiting, Biden addressed us directly. The apology I never thought would come came, and I accept.