27 Years of Crime Bill Politics

by Tracey Corder, Campaign Director — Policing & Incarceration

Photo by Jesse Young, Unsplash.com

“We have predators on our streets. That society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created. Again it does not mean because we created them that we somehow forgive them or do not take them out of society to protect my family and yours from them. They are beyond the pale many of these people.”

These are not the words of the leader of a police union or a self-proclaimed right wing politician, they are the words of President Joseph R. Biden spoken as part of the justification for passing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act commonly referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill. Almost 27 years to the date of the passage of the Crime Bill we must revisit those words because they have been the guide to past and current policies on policing, prisons and surveillance.

Former Senator, Joseph Biden defending the ‘94 Crime Bill

Congress has not been able to pass meaningful legislation to address police violence in the year since the uprisings following the public execution of George Floyd by the Minnesota Police Department. What they have done is attempt to undermine the demands of Black activists who seek to get to the root causes of violence and redefine public safety. Even the name “Violent Crime Control” doesn’t speak to solutions offered that define community safety as prevention. Perhaps that is why the phrase “defund the police” has been attacked so stridently by those who are more concerned with control and enforcement than with actual thriving communities that provide, rehabilitate and heal.

While many people have looked back at the passage of the 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 crucial to also note that the bill established a system to compensate states for incarcerating undocumented immigrants, implemented 3 strikes laws, and added 60 new death penalty offenses. These heavy-handed, punitive measures in no way contribute to public safety.

Photo by Michael Muthee, Unsplash.com

In addition to the words and vote of President Biden for the Crime Bill, it is important to note that Leader Chuck Schumer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn all voted for the Crime Bill. While there are a handful of other Democrats in the House and Senate who also voted for the legislation, Congressperson Bobby Rush has acknowledged that he is ashamed and apologized for supporting it while Congressperson Maxine Waters spoke against it in 1994.

We have consistently been failed by both parties on issues of public safety as evident by the most recent vote-a-rama with the unanimous vote to to penalize localities that defund the police and all Democrats joining Josh Hawley in his amendment to put 200,000 more police on the streets. Reflecting on the past means taking those lessons into the future.

While Democratic Leadership has chosen to reboot their Tough on Crime policies, formations like the People’s Coalition for Safety and Freedom are pushing an approach that repeals the 1994 Crime Bill all together and replaces it with democratically written legislation that centers the voices, experience and expertise of those most impacted.

Congress can also pass the People’s Response Act authored by Congressperson Cori Bush and inspired by the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE ACT, as well as adopt the People’s Justice Guarantee authored by Congressperson Ayanna Pressley. Divesting from punitive systems and investing in the things that meet people’s basic needs like healthcare, housing, and infrastructure to name a few is a first and necessary step towards repairing the ongoing harm of the legal system.

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