10 Things To Know About The Clinton Crime Bill And Mass Incarceration

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Written by Dana Sanchez
Clinton crime bill
President Bill Clinton hugs Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, after signing the $30 billion crime bill at the White House on Sept. 13, 1994. AP Photo/Dennis Cook

In the 1990s, fear of crime was the beating heart of then-President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy. It was to Clinton what illegal immigration is to President Donald Trump today, Bruce Shapiro wrote in The Nation.

Clinton pushed for legislation. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed with bipartisan support in 1994 and signed into law.

The bill disproportionately hurt African Americans and worsened racial inequality in the justice system. Black Americans represent 13 percent of U.S residents but account for 40 percent of the incarcerated population, according to PrisonPolicy.org.

Clinton later apologized for the crime bill, saying in 2015 that it made mass incarceration worse. “Too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored,” Clinton said.

Politicians including the former president, former first lady Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and others sought political gain from the crime bill. Now the bill is showing up at candidate events leading up to the 2020 election.

Here are 10 things to know about the Clinton crime bill and mass incarceration.

Before it was the Clinton crime bill, it was the Biden crime bill

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in the 1990s, played a crucial role in passing the crime bill, The Hill reported.

Biden boasted at a 2007 Democratic presidential debate that the now-infamous law was the “Biden crime bill” before it became known as the “Clinton crime bill.”

What the crime bill did

The 1994 crime bill made all this possible:

  • It provided more money for new and existing prisons.
  • It provided harsher punishments including for drug offenses.
  • It expanded the death penalty.
  • It offered more federal money for states that adopted the “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which ensured violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
  • It led to the abolition of federal Pell grants for prisoners’ college tuition.
  • It led to 13-year-olds being tried as adults.
  • It helped pay for “a tidal wave of military gear” that arrived “at local police departments, bigger than the arsenals of many nations.”
  • It introduced the “three strikes” rule that gave mandatory life sentences without parole to people convicted of three or more serious violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes.

The crime bill was designed as a political symbol

In the 1990s, crime was to Bill Clinton what illegal immigration is to Donald Trump today, Bruce Shapiro wrote for The Nation. The crime bill was “a way of reassuring fearful, alienated white voters, especially in the South. Fear of offenders, fear of gangs, fear of ungovernable teenage “superpredators” (a supposed generational wolf-pack who never actually appeared): Those were the political currency of the era.”

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The crime bill was a failure

“It has been well-documented that these policies were failures,” according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that analyzed the crime bill’s impact and cost to society.

“Their cost to society came not only from the staggering amount of taxpayer dollars that were invested in enforcement, but also from the disproportionate incarceration of a generation of African American men in the name of public safety.

“Moreover, tough-on-crime measures—specifically longer incarceration sentences—have had at best a marginal effect on improving public safety.”

Biden defended the bill as recently as 2016

In 2016, Biden said he was not ashamed of his role in writing the 1994 Crime Bill and defended its record. The bill isn’t the problem, he told CNBC. “The problem is institutional racism in America. That’s the overarching problem that still exists and we should be talking about.”

Hillary Clinton used ‘superpredator’ term. Now Trump is using it

“Superpredator” is a popular phrase from the mid-1990s associated with the crime bill. It was often used to describe young Black males who committed violent crime. Then-first lady Hillary Clinton often used the expression, Newsweek reported. Now Trump is invoking it again for political gain to try and get votes in 2020.

“Super Predator was the term associated with the 1994 Crime Bill that Sleepy Joe Biden was so heavily involved in passing,” Trump wrote in a recent tweet. “That was a dark period in American History, but has Sleepy Joe apologized? No!”

Expect Trump to use it again. And again.

Trump is capitalizing on the huge mistake of the crime bill, even though it was a bipartisan bill

As the 2020 elections approach, Trump and other politicians seeking office are now capitalizing on the mistake that the crime bill and Biden’s role in it represent.

As part of his ongoing efforts to mediate reality, Trump said Biden’s involvement in passing the bill makes him unelectable: “Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected. In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for you,” Trump tweeted in May. “I, on the other hand, was responsible for Criminal Justice Reform, which had tremendous support, and helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!”

The First Step Act which Trump claims credit for has limited reach written into its name. It’s only the first step in reforming the federal criminal justice system and won’t amount to a big change in America’s criminal justice system, partly because the federal prison system makes up a relatively small portion of the incarcerated U.S. population.

Other 2020 Democratic candidates have criticized Biden

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called Biden’s work on the bill “a huge mistake” on CNN’s “State of the Union”. Kamala Harris has also criticized Biden. Bernie Sanders endorsed the crime bill.

The crime bill was vigorously opposed

Criminologists, civil-rights lawyers, community activists, and members of Congress fought against the bill’s provisions, The Nation reported. Rep. Ron Dellums, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted against it along with 168 other members of the House and 34 senators. “That it passed at all was a tribute to the Clinton administration’s cynical decision to bundle mandatory minimums and prison expansion with the Violence Against Women Act and weapons regulation, making it harder for uneasy progressives to just say no,” Shapiro wrote.

By the time the crime bill was passed, violent crime was declining

Clinton acknowledged the problems with the 1994 Crime Bill. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” he told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2015, CNN reported. “And I want to admit it … The good news is we had the biggest drop in crime in history.”

The irony is that by the time the crime bill was passed, violent crime was already on the way down. When crime-bill funds started reaching states and cities in 1995, homicide levels were at the lowest since the Reagan era, driven by changes in the drug market and other developments unrelated to Clinton’s tough-on-crime campaign.