About That Controversial 1994 Crime Bill

It is rare for a bill signed into law 21 years ago to have such a significant impact on a presidential election. But this election is the one where we all started talking about what is arguably the most infamous crime bill in U.S. history: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Most recently taking center stage last Thursday when Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted Bill Clinton during a political rally intended to bolster his wife’s presidential campaign in Philadelphia, the legislation has spent a lot of time in the spotlight this election season. But as much as this crime bill has been tossed back and forth between supporters and protestors of both Clinton and Sanders like a political hand grenade, there seems to be little understanding of the crime bill itself. So let’s take a look at this powerful act from over two decades ago — what was in it, what it was intended to do, what it actually did, and who took part. But before we do that, let’s examine what crime looked like in the years leading up to the passage of the crime bill.

Crime In The U.S. Leading Up To 1994

Previously steady for decades, crime in the U.S. rose sharply from the 1960s through the mid-’70s — corresponding with the rise of heroin and then crack cocaine use in America. Cheap to produce and sell, highly addictive and affordable, and easy to transport, crack cocaine quickly became the drug trade of choice for inner-city gang members. The rise in violent crime was not necessarily connected with the drug users themselves, but with the territorial and financial disputes among the gangs in the drug trade. This also increased the power that gangs held in neighborhoods and their ability to recruit and provide for their members. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the violent crime rate had remained steadily high, with the homicide rate actually peaking at 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980.

By 1994, the crime rate showed no signs of increasing, and was in fact already decreasing in almost every major city in the country — but the popular perception that crime was on the rise persisted. News media, politicians, and even noted criminal justice experts talked of an out-of-control crime rate that was only going to increase. Noted criminologist and Northeastern professor James Alan Fox predicted in a report commissioned by the U.S. Attorney General in 1995 said that the youth homicide rate in the U.S. would, in the best case scenario, rise 15% over the next decade. His worst-case predictions were that we’d see a 100% increase in youth homicides over the next 10 years. In reality, the juvenile murder rate fell 50% over the next six years.

In the early-mid 1990s, despite all evidence to the contrary, we had a country afraid that young black men were quickly turning into a homicidal race. It was in this environment — one of a country late waking up to the horrifying, violent havoc the crack epidemic had wreaked on inner-city communities, and even later to wake up to the decline of that violence and the crack epidemic itself — that the 1994 crime bill was born.

The Players

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was a thoroughly bipartisan bill. The American public was terrified of violent crime; in January of 1994, 37% of Americans listed crime as the most important issue facing the country. Candidates who looked soft on crime were quickly and soundly defeated by candidates promising to clean up the streets. This sentiment was universal among all racial identities, income classes, and major political affiliations.

The crime bill was written by then Senator, now Vice President, Joe Biden. It was voted for by a bipartisan majority of congressmen and women, including Bernie Sanders (although he did voice reservations about the increased prisons and death penalty crimes in the bill). It was supported by then First Lady Hillary Clinton and was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton.

There are no clean hands where this bill is concerned.

What Was In The Crime Bill?

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was the largest crime bill in the history of the United States. It touched practically all corners of the criminal justice system, on both a state and federal level. Here are some of the more notable parts of the bill:

  • Increase in police force: the bill provided for 100,000 new police officers
  • $9.7 billion in funding for new prisons
  • $6.1 billion in funding for crime prevention programs
  • New crime definitions and statutes relating to immigration offenses, gang-related crime, sex crimes, and hate crimes
  • Created 60 new federal death penalty offenses, including drive-by-shootings resulting in death, carjackings resulting in death, and terrorism-related crimes
  • Banned Pell Grants for inmates seeking higher education
  • Authorized initiation of “boot camps” for juvenile offenders
  • Added 50 new federal offenses, including membership in a gang
  • The infamous “three strikes” rule, which carried a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for anyone with three or more convictions for serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes
  • Increased funding for women’s shelters, the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and the strengthening of restraining order protections nationwide

The Effects Of The Crime Bill

The measurable effects of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act are widely debated to this day. Most sources agree, however, that its effect on reducing violent crime was modest at best, with most estimates topping out at a 5% violent crime reduction. Also debated, however, was the impact that the crime bill had on the overall incarceration rate. Data shows that the drastic increase in incarceration, especially for black males, started in the 1970s with the federal war on drugs and laws passed in the 1980s increasing penalties for crack cocaine use and distribution.

But in these murky waters, there are some possible correlations to be drawn and causations to be hypothesized. The 1994 crime bill coincided with a sharp increase in the harshness of prosecutors when prosecuting crime. The probability that a crime would result in felony charges from a prosecutor doubled between 1994 and 2008. Whether this was encouraged by the “pro-incarceration” sentiment of the crime bill, or simply reflective of the same national sentiment, is impossible to tell.

The inability for the majority of prisoners to receive higher educations in prison due to the prohibition of grants in the crime bill also ensured that prisoners were released from prison with far fewer resources to build a productive and crime-free life than they had before. Young people who went to prison at 18, foolish, but still able to learn, came out at 30 — jaded and unemployable.

And it can be argued quite strongly that the crime bill continued a path of criminalizing blackness and criminalizing drug addiction that has led to the mass incarceration of black and Latino men we see today, an approach which is just now beginning to be corrected with new strategies tackling the current heroin epidemic. One can draw conclusions about the difference in approaches from the difference in race of those primarily affected by heroin addiction verses crack cocaine addiction.

Finally, it’s pretty clear that the massive increase in funding for new prisons is at least partially responsible for an entire generation — 1.5 million — missing black men, and likely influenced today’s for-profit prison industry.

What To Make Of It All

You are, of course, free to draw any conclusions you wish from the information provided above. But my intent is not to provide ammunition for one candidate’s camp against another. The truth is, all of America is complicit in the policies that led to mass incarceration and over-policing of black and brown communities. I do not believe that just because everyone had a hand in it, that nobody is responsible. Everybody should be held accountable for the part they played, not only in passing this bill, but in the passing of similar crime bills, in contributing to the narrative of the young black male as a “super-predator,” and in helping to create our massive prison industrial complex.

The press who fed off of the fears of American families by telling horror stories of a crime rate that was actually in decline are to blame. All of us who believed what we saw in the papers in the early ’90s instead of what we saw with our own eyes, are to blame. The politicians who were willing to throw young black men under the bus in order to win elections are to blame. Those of us who stopped seeing black kids as kids are to blame. If you choose to forgive those decisions made in the early ’90s, that is up to you, and you are free to vote accordingly. But we have a responsibility to never forget, and never let those who have contributed to the devastation of the black community forget either. Because we are still paying for those decisions today.


Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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