Former President Bill Clinton caused a stir last week when, confronted by protesters at a campaign rally in Philadelphia, he offered this defense of the racist language deployed by then–first lady Hillary Clinton as justification for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994:
I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens…. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth!
That Bill Clinton is now forcefully defending the same bill that, just last year, he admitted “made the problem [of mass incarceration] worse” does not come as a surprise. For the entirety of his political career, Clinton has attempted to sell regressive racist policies as a form of advancement for black communities, while enjoying a level of cultural cachet within those communities that has largely inoculated him from the criticism he deserves.
Those days are over—and we are finally reckoning with the damage done during Clinton’s presidency and demanding more from the Democratic Party. But Clinton’s comments still shed light on the way our 1990s conceptions of crime and justice influence how we understand those conceptions today.
Undergirding Clinton’s defense of the crime bill is the belief in the existence of a natural and permanent criminal class of citizens. If there are people who are going to commit crimes, logically it follows that we should have mechanisms in place to punish those people. As that class of people grows and shows more and more disregard for the law, logically it follows that we should invest more in those mechanisms of punishment while also making them harsher.
But there is no inherent criminality. First, crime is not a fixed category of behavior. Anything can be a crime if we pass the legislation to make it so. Sagging your pants is a crime in some places. If Republicans have their way, performing an abortion, a routine medical procedure, could become a crime. What is and isn’t illegal is not the best barometer for a behavior’s morality.
And with that, what is and isn’t illegal does vary from state to state, city to city. Consuming alcohol in public is illegal in some places, perfectly legal in others. Selling marijuana is illegal in most places, but, increasingly, legal in others. Does breaking a law in one state that isn’t illegal in another state make you a criminal?
Additionally, if the threshold for becoming a criminal is breaking the law, are not most people criminals? If littering and driving over the speed limit were illegal, wouldn’t most American fit the description of a criminal for having broken these laws? Or does the “criminal” tag only apply to those offenses that we’ve deemed serious enough to warrant prison time?