“I know those young people were just trying to get good television,” said Hillary Clinton’s husband as he reflected on his earlier decision to go horns-first after Black Lives Matter protesters. Imagine, for a moment, if George W. Bush had said those words after being confronted by angry Iraq War veterans. Instead, the ex-president is Bill Clinton, and the protesters were young African Americans whose parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors still endure the consequences of his 1994 Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act.
The 1994 crime bill is, like the Iraq war, an unwelcome guest continually showing up at feel-good candidate events. 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, allowing that, in the former president’s words, “too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored.” Candidate Hillary now declares that “the era of mass incarceration must end,” without quite saying who inaugurated it. But with 2.3 million Americans in behind bars and policing abuses a national scandal, the crime bill just keeps coming back.
Since 1994, the text of that crime bill has sat on my shelf by my desk: 356 pages of it, 33 separate titles, dozens of subsections. For many months back then, I covered the intense debate over that sweeping and dangerous bill. As this year’s campaign has unfolded, I have been troubled by the Clinton campaign’s portrayal of today’s obscene level of incarceration as the accidental byproduct of a well-intentioned, universally supported, and thoroughly justified effort to address violent crime. The latest version of this shoulder-shrug: ex-President Clinton’s stunning outburst at activists this week: “I don’t know how you would characterize gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children.… Maybe you thought they were good citizens.”
Here’s the reality: In the late 1980s and early ’90s, the thriving crack market, combined with massive unregulated gun trafficking, drove a catastrophic spike in the murder rate in many inner cities. But except for a handful of provisions—assault-weapons regulation, grants for community policing and hiring cops—most of the 1994 crime bill had nothing to do with that problem. To read the bill’s full text today feels like stumbling upon a prophecy calling out everything that has since gone wrong with the criminal-justice system:
- Subsidies for state prison expansion
- A brutally inflexible federal three-strikes law ensuring that record numbers of prisoners would remain locked up for nonviolent and second-tier felonies
- Abolition of federal Pell grants for prisoners’ college tuition, ensuring that paroled offenders return to their communities without having had a chance to advance their education past high school
- Enthusiastic promotion of mandatory minimum sentences
- 13-year-old offenders tried as adults
- A vastly expanded federal death penalty, imposed just as growing numbers of states were backing away from capital punishment
- A tidal wave of military gear arriving at local police departments, bigger than the arsenals of many nations
None of this—contrary to this year’s campaign mythology—was a fait accompli. Back in 1994, criminologists, civil-rights lawyers, community activists, and members of Congress all fought against various provisions of the bill. A hundred and sixty-nine members of the House, including Representative Ron Dellums, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted against it. So did 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.