Biden Needs to Own Up to the 94 Crime Bill, Dems Need to Fix the Damage
At the second night of the Democratic presidential debate, on a stage where Joe Biden stood next to Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, the topic of criminal justice reform and the 1994 Crime Bill didn’t come up once. Not once. Here’s why that’s a problem.
This September marks the 25th anniversary of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, commonly known as the “94 Crime Bill.” Through sweeping federal and liberal imprint towards the narrative that policing and prisons equal safety, the bill has had an undeniable and destructive impact on our national discourse and on the lives of impacted people. Twenty-five years later, its relevance is being raised within the context of the current election cycle because former Vice President Joe Biden authored it and Senator Bernie Sanders voted for it.
Over the past several weeks, former Vice President Biden and his surrogates have attempted to explain away the connection between the ’94 Crime Bill and mass incarceration, talking instead about what they claim are the positives from the law without taking accountability for the substantial harm that it caused. It is laughable to suggest that the outcomes of the bill — which touched every aspect of the American punitive legal system, from the expansion of state prisons and police forces to the establishment of grant funding for truth-in-sentencing laws — did not contribute to mass incarceration.
Growing up in one of the most incarcerated zip codes in the country means that the inherent racist, classist nature of the criminal legal system have colored most of my life experiences. Whether it was my decision to become a social worker after college, an activists throughout my life or landing at my current position pushing towards real transformation — not just reform — in that system, the issue of mass incarceration is deeply personal to me.
When the current occupant of the White House signed the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Every Person Act — or the “First Step Act” — the Center for Popular Democracy stood in solidarity with organizers and organizations who champion a more radical reimagining of safety and opposed the bill.
Coming from a family that is directly impacted by incarceration I understand what it means to hear that your loved one will be released from prison. There is not a day that goes by I do not wish my younger brother was at home, picking my niece up from school, working in the real estate market like he so often talks about. We were clear that families who wanted freedom for their loved ones were not to blame for a bill that we saw as causing more harm to incarcerated individuals and that did very little to get to the root causes of the trauma caused to communities by the broken system.
What I was always clear about is that the current President would use this as an opportunity to show a “victory” made possible by the absence of a transformative vision laid out by Democrats to reclaim the mantle of public safety; a vision that shifts our society from one of policing, incarceration and surveillance to one of care, restorative justice and community investment.
While many people have looked back at the passage of the ’94 Crime Bill and reflected on the importance of the inclusion of the Violence Against Women’s Act and the assault rifle ban (which expired in 2004), it is critical to also note that the bill also established a system to compensate states for incarcerating undocumented immigrants and added 60 new death penalty offenses. These heavy-handed, punitive measures do not contribute to public safety.
Proponents of the Bill have doubled down on the defense that the Congressional Black Caucus supported it and that the Black community as a whole asked for it. Aside from the fact that the Black community is not a monolith and such a blanket statement is inappropriate, it is also not a historically accurate account and ignores important nuances in the fight for public safety. While there was support for the legislation, the Congressional Black Caucus initially pushed back and tried to remove some of the bill’s most punitive measures. In addition, Representatives Maxine Waters and Bobby Scott, both still Members of Congress, notably opposed the Crime Bill altogether. Representative Waters specifically called out the legislation’s “3 Strikes” provision and mandatory sentencing while Representative Scott echoed community concerns that the priority should be on prevention instead of punishment.
The Center for Popular Democracy, along with Law For Black Lives and BYP100 produced the Freedom to Thrive: Reimagining Safety and Security in Our Communities report that analyzed budgets in 12 jurisdictions and interviewed dozens of community organizations. Among the cities profiled, policy spending vastly outpaced expenditures in vital community resources and services, with some cities spending as much as 41.2% of their entire budget. When asked what keeps their communities safe, local organizers consistently talked about jobs, housing, transit, healthcare, and youth programming. And yet, police funding continues to increase across the country.
At a national level, programs like Community Oriented Policing Services or “The COPS Office” were developed within the Department of Justice, investing more than $14 billion federal dollars into state and local law enforcement. This same COPS program also awarded over $750 million for the hiring of police in schools, directly contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Since 1994, $23.1 billion has been used towards law enforcement and prison construction, compared to $7.1 billion to “crime prevention,” with the understanding that even some of the prevention dollars go towards policing.
This type of government spending and the institutional disregard for community priorities that it represents are part of the lasting impact of the ’94 Crime Bill. As we speak, it continues to harm communities of color by elevating punishment over education and healing.
What Democrats must do is lay out a vision for public safety prioritizes the wellbeing of people in our budgets. That begins with repealing the ’94 Crime Bill and reinvesting the over $30 billion spent since 1995 directly into communities most impacted by the punitive legal system. We need to see a plan that shows a massive divestment from incarceration, policing and surveillance and an investment in what communities have been saying — since the 90s — is needed to thrive: Medicare for All, Universal Childcare, Universal Rent Control, and a Green New Deal.