The legacy of the 1994 Crime Bill still hangs over the heads of the Democrats. No one really seems to want to talk about the ramifications of the bill, put forth by President Bill Clinton and written by then-Senator Joe Biden.
Here are five things the MSNBC brunch Democrats won’t tell Black America about the 1994 Biden Crime Bill.
Taking a “tough on crime” stance has helped more than a few Democrats get into the White House at the expense of Black America. For many Democrats, vowing to “lock ’em up” has been politically profitable. But taking this route often put Democrats in the pockets of law enforcement and police unions, which doesn’t sit well with all Black voters.
In the contentious 2020 race for the Oval Office, hardcore crime fighters Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are having to account for their pro-police history. But Biden and Harris aren’t the only Democrats who have had to contend with their law enforcement bios.
Back in 1992, then-Democratic nominee Bill Clinton didn’t want to appear too soft on crime so he did everything in his power to appear tough. He interrupted his campaign to head back to Arkansas for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an African-American man who murdered two people. But the case had not been straightforward. Rector suffered serious brain damage from a suicide attempt following the murders and his ability to assist in his own defense was doubtful, Prospect reported. His death sentence sparked controversy around the world. This didn’t give Clinton pause. Instead, Clinton offered no pardon and no reprieve.
Then there was Clinton’s infamous “Sister Souljah moment,” when he verbally attacked the young Black hip-hop artist and community activist. In an interview, Sister Souljah said, “(I)f black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” While speaking at a Rainbow Coalition conference, Clinton bashed Souljah, who was in attendance, and the organization for inviting her.
In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It resulted in the largest increase in incarceration rates in American history, The Guardian reported. Then-Sen. Joe Biden helped write the bill and it’s come back to bite him.
Hillary Clinton also got bitten by her past “tough on crime” stance during her 2016 bid for president. Her description of juvenile offenders as “super-predators” when she was first lady and her refusal to sincerely apologize for it was considered a major misstep in her campaign. There was much speculation that her pro-law-and-order record translated to the low turnout of Black voters, The Guardian reported.
Harris and Biden have some reckoning to do. Harris, considered progressive by conservatives, built her political and legal career by being tough on crime. When Harris became San Francisco district attorney in 2003, the primary concern of her electorate was safety. She ran with that. Her record of a high incarceration rate and pro-police decisions are now casting doubt in the Black America. Some of the people she helped lock up turned out to be innocent.
Ironically, when Harris was running for president and faced off against Biden in a Democratic presidential debate, she questioned Biden about the 1994 Crime Bill.
“I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Joe Biden, but I disagree. That crime bill, that 1994 crime bill, it did contribute to mass incarceration in this country,” Harris said.
Harris’s record as a prosecutor has come under harsh scrutiny from criminal justice reform advocates.
“As California attorney general, her office fought to release fewer prisoners amid overcrowding in the state’s system, with lawyers from her office arguing in 2014 that the releases could deprive the state of a source of labor,” The Hill reported.
Biden apologized in January for portions of his anti-crime legislation, but he tried to play down his involvement. In April he said that he “got stuck with” shepherding bill because he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, The New York Times reported.
The Congressional Black Caucus eventually voted to support the Clinton crime bill.
“A common DNC racist trope,” Moguldom Nation founder tweeted. “The CBC can support racism in Palestine b/c it needs domestic AIPAC support, what does that mean for judging the actual policy, the career trafficking & judgement? Ron Dellums, co-founder of the CBC, voted against w/ 134 members of Congress.”
In 1989, as violent crime was on the rise, Biden called out the Republican President George H. W. Bush, saying Bush was not doing enough to put “violent thugs” in prison. In 1993, Biden warned of “predators on our streets.” In 1994, when comparing himself to “soft on crime” Democrats, he declared, “And I would say, ‘Lock the SOBs up,’” The New York Times reported.
Despite all the pomp and circumstance around the 1994 Crime Bill when it was signed into law, it turns out it wasn’t really needed. Violent crime was already going down when the crime bill’s funds came available in 1995.
By 1995 — the first year crime-bill funds found their way to states and cities — homicide was at the lowest level since the Reagan era, driven by changes in the drug market and other developments unrelated to Clinton’s tough-on-crime campaign.
Crime had been higher before in the Black community, but activists, pastors, Imams, and even hip-hop artists were already working to lower crime.
“Obama praised Biden’s work on the 1994 Clinton crime bill but:: 1. When the first funding hit in 95, violent crime was already down. 2. Something big was going on: A powerful cultural wave before the Million Man March. Improper credit is nothin’ new,” Martin tweeted.
At Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995, he used the opportunity to denounce violence in the Black community and encourage self-reliance and responsibility.
A year prior, in 1994, Farrakhan held a male-only summit as part of the Nation of Islam’s ″Stop the Killing″ campaign. He told young Black men they should become ″agents of salvation″ for their race before anyone will be able to stop the violence that claims so many young Black lives, AP reported.
″We have been programmed, brothers, for self-destruction,″ Farrakhan said. ″We want to deprogram you from self destruction and reprogram you as agents of salvation of Black men. It won’t be hard to do.″
Farrakhan’s work against violence started long before that. In 1989, he held summits in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego to meet with gang members and encourage an end to violence. He spoke to some 900 gang leaders, The Los Angeles Times reported.
While the DNC and Bill Clinton were pushing for the 1994 Crime Bill, many in Black America were opposed such as CBC co-founder Rep. Ron Dellums.
While the “MSNBC brunch Democrats” like to tout that the CBC and Blacks supported the bill, that is far from true. Dellums fought hard against it.
Of course, there were some Black Democrats who most likely went along with it as not to rock the white power structure at the time.
Rev. Al Sharpton told MSNBC, “I was one of the few marching against the Crime Bill and against Sen. Biden. Many of the Black leaders were for the crime bill, most of the Congressional Black Caucus were.”
At the last minute, some Black lawmakers were persuaded by President Clinton to support the 1994 bill —including late civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia. They “got almost nothing in return” for their last-minute backing, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time, according to Newsweek.
Nothing was unintentional about the Crime Bill. Much like Donald Trump, Clinton used fear of crime as a motivator.
The bill is coming back to haunt the Democrats.
“The 1994 crime bill is, like the Iraq war, an unwelcome guest continually showing up at feel-good candidate events,” The Nation reported. “Twenty-two years ago, William Jefferson Clinton instigated the bill; Hillary Clinton lobbied for it; Bernie Sanders, then in the House, voted for it, reluctantly, after denouncing its core provisions. In recent months, both Clintons have stepped away from the crime bill’s legacy…But with 2.3 million Americans in behind bars and policing abuses a national scandal, the crime bill just keeps coming back.”
The pro-law-enforcement legislation may as well have been written by the police themselves. And, that, according to a 2020 Washington Post article, is exactly what happened with the now-infamous 1994 Crime Bill. While Biden is credited with writing the bill, it seems he allowed police groups to assist him in the writing.
A man named Tom Scotto became a fixture in Biden’s Capitol Hill office. No, Scotto was not a Biden staffer. He was president of the National Association of Police Organizations, a lobbying group and coalition of police unions representing about 220,000 police department employees. It’s the country’s second-largest police group.
It turns out that Scotto worked alongside Biden in writing the bill, The Washington Post reported.
Among the most significant and long-lasting impacts of the legislation was incentive grants authorized to build or expand prisons. This provided $12.5 billion in grants to fund incarceration, with nearly half earmarked for states that adopted tough “truth-in-sentencing” laws that scaled back parole, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Under this grant program, eligible states got money to expand their prison capacity to incarcerate people convicted of violent crimes.
The legislation helped fuel a prison construction boom. The number of state and federal adult correctional facilities increased by 43 percent from 1990 to 2005.
In 2015, former President Bill Clinton said he regretted his “three-strikes” crime bill, admitting it contributed to the problem of overpopulated prisons.
The federal “three-strikes” provision required mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for those who committed a federal violent felony if they had two or more previous convictions for violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes, even if the first two were at the state level, The Washington Post reported.
Listen to GHOGH with Jamarlin Martin | Episode 73: Jamarlin Martin Jamarlin makes the case for why this is a multi-factor rebellion vs. just protests about George Floyd. He discusses the Democratic Party’s sneaky relationship with the police in cities and states under Dem control, and why Joe Biden is a cop and the Steve Jobs of mass incarceration.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it,” Clinton said. Still, even with regret, he defended the bill, saying it put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, BBC reported.
Biden defended the bill by saying, “Folks, let’s get something straight: 90 or 92 of every 100 prisoners behind the bars is in state prison, not a federal prison. This idea that the crime bill generated mass incarceration — it did not generate mass incarceration…I made sure there was a set-up in that law that said there were no more mandatories, except two that I had to accept. One was the President Clinton one of ‘three strikes and you’re out.’”
MSNBC commentator Joy Reid threw in her two cents for the defense, blaming a need by the government to curb the crack epidemic.
“The context was the crack epidemic was tearing through Black communities, and Black pastors were demanding a bill,” Reid said. “He put that bill together that also included an assault weapons ban. It also included the Violence Against Women Act. Let’s just remember the context back in that era. I remember being in New York and there was a lot of crime perpetrated within the Black community, which is why Joe Biden ended up doing that bill.”
Defenders of the Clinton crime bill deny that it created the problem of mass incarceration. The U.S. incarcerates more of its people — disproportionately Black — than any other country in the world.
Crime bill defenders argue that mass incarceration was a problem before the law passed. “And regardless, they argue, the federal government has limited jurisdiction over the problem, as 90 percent of people in prison and jail are under state jurisdiction,” according to the ACLU.