The Crime Bill Was the Right Thing to Do- In 1994


Recently, President Bill Clinton addressed the NAACP and basically called the 1994 Crime Bill that he signed a mistake. I fully understand and agree with the reasons he feels that way. I also understand the politics that make this an easy bill to disavow in 2015. I don’t agree with his assessment though, precisely because it is being made in 2015, and not 1994. In 1994 you would not have made this case, because in 1994 the bill was the right thing to do. In 2015, it is time to move beyond that bill, towards a better criminal justice system.

The first thing to understand is that racism and other forms of discrimination already existed in our criminal justice system before 1994. Tensions between African-Americans and the police existed before 1994. Unfair sentencing, and consequences for non-violent felons existed before 1994. The Crime Bill did some bad things that exasperated the situation, that is true. The Crime Bill did not, in and of itself create new negative conditions for African-Americans, or necessarily even make life worse for African-Americans at the time.

The second thing to understand is the time the Crime Bill was passed in. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, on the heels of the 1980s. The 1980s were a horrible decade in many of our major cities, as the crack epidemic wreaked havoc on cities like Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and more. Many of the most impoverished cities in America saw spikes in violent crime, and people in those neighborhoods hit hardest saw their quality of life drop. Some of these cities were moving towards law and order themselves, electing former prosecutors like Ed Rendell and Rudy Giuliani, with mandates to make the streets safe again.

The third thing to understand is all of the good things that were in the Crime Bill. First, it created the first Federal Assault Weapons Ban, something that President Bush inexplicably let expire, but during it’s life it kept many extremely dangerous weapons off of the streets, and out of private hands. Second, it created the “Megan’s Law” registries by requiring states to create sex-offender registries by 1997, something I think we universally support. Third, it created the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which increased penalties for domestic battery and provided needed funding for shelters and protection for women. Fourth, it created the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which helped shield DMV information from anti-abortion activists who wanted to use the information to track down and intimidate opponents and people who had abortions. Fifth, the bill provided $14 billion in funding to hire more community police, at a time when our crime rate was considerably higher, putting over 100,000 new cops on the streets, protecting them, and creating good paying jobs here. Sixth, it required the Department of Justice to issue annual reports on excessive force by police officers, though that was never implemented. Finally, the bill created new criminal statutes for gang membership, allowing police another tool to face down violent criminals.

There are definitely things I did not like about the bill. It ended inmate education programs. It banned felons from yet more jobs after their term in prison. It created stiffer mandatory minimum sentencing, especially for drug crimes. It increased the ability to use the death penalty, which I think today we can agree hasn’t really worked. It helped expand the prison industrial complex. We never got the reports on excessive force from DOJ. The Assault Weapons Ban went away after 2004. There’s plenty to not like.

It’s important to note though that between this act and an improving economy across the nation for almost 15 years after the act, we saw crime go down to all-time lows by today. New York, Washington, and Philadelphia are safer than they have ever been. Crime is much less a problem today than it was in 1994, and it’s very hard to say that the Crime Bill did not impact that. It was the right thing to do- in 1994.

It is 2015 though now, and crime is way down. It is time to amend, change, and repeal parts of the act. Mandatory Minimum sentencing has been a failure. Banning felons from jobs after incarceration has been a failure. Taking away education programs from inmates has been a failure. The death penalty doesn’t work. The private prison industry, and the general push for more incarcerations doesn’t just not work, it causes corruption. We do have an excessive force issue in policing, regardless of how wide-spread it is or not, and that needs not just reports, but actions. it’s time to end the war on drugs, stop making incarceration the preferred response to non-violent crime, and give the convicted a pathway to a better, law-abiding life when they leave prison. We should, at a minimum, issue a moratorium on the death penalty, as it’s use has been completely unfair and unreliable. There is work to do to make our criminal justice system more fair, and more equitable to all groups.

With that said, I have to disagree with Bill Clinton- signing the Crime Bill in 1994 was not a mistake. The mistake has been the inaction by Congress to amend it as challenges and problems have arisen. The job of Congress and the President in 2015 is to amend our criminal justice system to bring balance and fairness back to it. We’re not living in 1994, and surely a law from 1994 is inadequate in today’s world. No one with a brain would sign the same law today. This doesn’t mean we still don’t see some benefits from the good things. This doesn’t mean it was wrong then. This means we shouldn’t be re-debating a 1994 law, and we should instead live in 2015 on this issue. There is work to do today, and that should be the focus of fair-minded people in this debate.


One Response to “The Crime Bill Was the Right Thing to Do- In 1994”

  1. […] I wrote about the 1994 crime bill a few weeks back, I got a lot of email and Facebook pushback from people who were missing my main […]

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