In the early half of 2016, the subject of the 1994 crime bill dogged Hillary Clinton’s campaign — until it was eclipsed by other matters. The attention was eventually placed on Clinton because her husband, Bill, signed it into law and Hillary gave her unyielding support to it at the time.
In a 1996 speech, Mrs. Clinton hit upon a couple of buzzwords in defense of the 1994 law; those were eventually used against her. Naturally, Hillary Clinton was called out for her mention of the term “super-predators” (in black neighborhoods).
They are not just talking about gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super-predators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first, we have to bring them to heel …
Activists, especially those apart of or in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, thus called former Secretary Clinton’s civil rights credentials into question.
Eventually, Bill Clinton was confronted for his role as president, since he signed the 1994 crime bill into law. In defending his wife, Clinton made some incendiary comments.
What do I think of the law and Bill Clinton’s comments? I can’t exactly tell you without establishing some context. For starters, I need to look at the law itself, why it was passed, and its effects on black Americans and the overall prison population.
Looking at Some of the Tenets of the 1994 Crime Bill
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was signed by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994.
The crime bill provided funds for 100,000 new municipal police officers, $9.7 billion in new funding for federal prisons, and $1.6 billion in new funds for combatting violence against women. There were other grants to be doled out over two years, including those for after-school programs.
The law called for a federal assault weapons ban, the elimination of inmate education programs, the expansion of the death penalty, and the “three strikes” sentencing mandates at the federal level. There was also a provision for “truth in sentencing” (TIS) laws, a requirement states needed to meet in order to get funding for more prisons.
The last two parts were especially controversial. In particular, “three strikes” laws could lead to lifetime imprisonment, even for small offenses. TIS laws required inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences.
Looking at Some of the Effects of the 1994 Crime Bill
Bill Clinton apologized for the crime bill, yet he blamed others for demanding the harsher aspects of it (in order for the bill to be passed) and he later defended his decision-making. He claims the law led to a “25-year low in crime,” although numerous studies said the law had a negligible effect in that regard. If anything, the law had an adverse effect on those who were incarcerated and the communities where they lived.
After the 1994 federal crime bill was passed, many of the states passed their own versions of the law. As a result, more money went from prevention programs to incarceration. Depending on the state, the laws were especially punitive to Americans of color and thus damaging to their communities.
The 1994 crime bill led to mass incarcerations in black communities and only fed into the “school-to-prison pipeline.” For one thing, some states adopted mandatory minimum sentencing laws and started trying kids as adults for some serious crimes. Also, the lack of prevention programs, like “midnight basketball,” put youths at a greater risk.
Drug laws were especially harmful, depending on the drug. For instance, there were “100 to 1” sentences laws put into place in 1986. The laws especially punished users of crack cocaine while users of powder cocaine were treated with kid gloves. When the crime bill was passed, the Sentencing Commission recommended the “100 to 1” laws be abolished. However, the Republican-led Congress passed an amendment to ignore that decision.
That disparity was officially reduced in 2010.
Regardless, all the laws exploded the prison population. While the 1994 crime bill only affected federal prison rates, the federal prison rate more than doubled. Overall: Compared to 1972, there was a 400% increase in the number of incarcerated Americans, to an absolute peak number of 2.23 million, which not only led the Western world but led the entire world. Today, we still have more prisoners than any other country (including China).
And of course, Blacks and Latinos were adversely affected. I plan to explore this further in upcoming posts.
Dissecting Bill Clinton’s Remarks to Protesters in April 2016
By the time the 2016 presidential election kicked off, there was a heightened awareness of police brutality. Thus, Hillary Clinton’s 1996 speech was reshown and it became a major point of discussion during last year’s election.
While campaigning for his wife in Philadelphia in early April 2016, Mr. Clinton made a few statements that sparked controversy. While he had previously recognized how the law exploded the prison population, he seemingly defended his intent and that of his wife.
At points, Mr. Clinton was interrupted by at least one person. The tension culminated in a 15-minute exchange Former President Bill Clinton had with his audience. Mr. Clinton insisted that he be able to tell the whole story.
In Bill Clinton’s Defense?
In the early 1990s, there were high violent crime rates and a growing concern about illegal guns. The crime rate increased by 5% from 1987 to 1991, when there were 9.8 deaths per 100,000 Americans. Thus there was a push to “get tough on crime,” from whites and many in the African-American community.
Sen. Joe Biden was on the committee responsible for the bill and legislation had large support among the Democrats in Congress. In all, 23 black lawmakers voted in favor of the bill. They included Rep. James Clyburn, who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Other black Democrats, like Rep. John Lewis (who all may have been from “safe districts”), voted against the bill.
As some analysts would attest, a crime bill was necessary for Bill (and Hillary) Clinton’s political survival. (Clinton did not mention that last part, but he said Biden was concerned the bill would be defeated by Republicans if there weren’t tough sentencing provisions in there.)
Clinton also pointed out that most of the prison population (around 90%) was in state and local prisons and jails. Regardless, he agreed that even the federal prisons were overcrowded.
In addition, Clinton pointed out how Bernie Sanders (not mentioned by name) voted in favor of the bill, but “I don’t blame him, either.” But Clinton insisted that his wife was the first candidate calling for nonviolent drug offenders to be let out of prison.
Bill Clinton also defended his Welfare Reform bill (but that’s another topic for another time).
Some Snippets from the Exchange
In the beginning, Clinton tried to control the crowd:
Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Okay, I heard it. Can I answer?
You see, I love protesters, but the ones who won’t let you answer are afraid of the truth. That’s a simple vote. Be Afraid. Be very, very afraid.
Clinton also said he was implored by members of the African-American community to pass the crime bill:
I talked to a lot of African-American groups. They thought ‘Black Lives Mattered.’ They said, ‘Take this bill because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs. We have 13-year-olds planning their own funerals.
The exchange went on, eventually leading up to this impassioned statement from Bill Clinton:
I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children … Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary] didn’t. She didn’t. You are defending the people who kill the lives of those you say matter.
What I Think
While I will agree that Clinton had every right to speak and the interruptions were very rude, I do not agree with everything he said. Sure, African-Americans were scared and wanted the government to help bring down crime rates. It was politically expedient for that law to be passed. But I cannot ignore the negative impact of the laws.
On one hand, Clinton had a point when he mentioned that states had a hand in incarceration rates. I also agree with the assault weapons ban. But the sentencing laws were extreme and so was the shifting of funds from education programs in prison.
If we are to decrease recidivism rates, we will need to focus more on rehabilitation. Education programs have to be part of that.
In addition, Clinton’s case for “unintended consequences” of the 1994 crime bill goes out the window when one considers how the former president signed an amendment that kept the “100 to 1” sentencing laws in place. The “War on Drugs” was started in the 1970s in order to punish black Americans and the disparity only exacerbated things.
And around the same time, Clinton signed the Riegle-Neal interstate banking bill. That was but one of the moves the president made to deregulate the banking industry.
As Thomas Frank pointed out, that presented a stark contrast. While disadvantaged Americans were being put under strict crime laws, bankers and financiers were being freed up to commit the offenses that led up to the housing and financial crises of the past decade.
There’s no real defense of the 1994 Crime Bill. While we need solutions for dealing with crime and reassuring Americans something is being done, action should never be taken without exploring the possible consequences. This is one reason why the Black Lives Matter Movement became a thing.
Speaking of Black Lives Matter, that will be my next topic for Write Anything Wednesday. What is it about, what do I think of it, and what has it accomplished?
2 thoughts on “Let’s Look Back at the 1994 Crime Bill”
I think you’ve hit upon one of the problems with hyper-partisanship: we cannot criticize our own without feeling as if we have damned them to hell and back or having given fodder for enemy fire. It really makes no sense. I remember the climate at the time of the Crime Bill. I was against it, but crime was bad, Republicans were pulling Dems further right in order to be competitive, and Bill Clinton was a damn good politician and knew that a leader got out in front of wherever people were going. Were there other solutions to crime? Most definitely. Would any of them get the political support the Crime Bill got? Probably not.
Clinton was wrong then to use a term like super predator. Anyone using the term now is wrong. But, the feeling a year ago when these accusations were happening and the news being made felt like a criticism that could sink the Clinton ship against Republicans because it wasn’t ever going to sink her against Sanders.
Our hyper-partisanship even extended to the Sanders-Clinton competition. What started out as a friendly campaign between two equals turned ugly by the end. It remains ugly to this day largely because we cannot honestly appraise and constructively criticize our candidates and office holders.
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At first, it was very hard for me to hear criticisms of President Obama, let alone criticize him myself. There was a bit of an emotional attachment to him and excitement for the historical significance to his presidency. However, there were always valid criticisms of Obama and I came to realize I needed to objectively weigh his domestic and foreign policy.
With Bill Clinton, I have looked upon his presidency with nostalgia, but there were valid criticisms where his policies were concerned. I don’t believe I have a problem with his foreign policy (although I need to give it a closer look), but there were numerous domestic policies that should have been criticized.
The 1994 crime bill is one such policy, although Bill Clinton raises a few fair points. For one thing, much of the damage was done at the state and local level. The crime bill only governed federal prisons, while only providing funding for various state and local programs. Also, like you said, the failure to do anything would have been politically toxic.
Moving forward, there are solutions out there to deal with crime and build bridges between civilians and law enforcement. I will hit on them next week as I look at the Black Lives Matter movement.
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