Bill Clinton and the 1994 crime bill

There has been quite a lot of attention recently to the 1994 crime bill that Bill Clinton signed into law that led to the widespread imprisonment of large numbers of young black men with devastating consequences for the community. The Clintons and their supporters have gone into damage control mode and it has followed the usual pattern of suggesting that ‘everyone’ agreed on that policy at that time and that it is now Monday morning quarterbacks who are complaining with the benefit of hindsight.

Commenter lorn made just this case saying:

What you are obviously missing, given the odds you actually never saw the problem, is the simple fact that the Progressives of the time all agreed that super-predators were a problem and cheered mightily when the answers, not originating with the Clintons, were implemented. To this day many inner city residents, the majority brown or black, and poor, credit the policy for making their neighborhoods safe again. Many within the inner city minority community voted for Bill Clinton for his second run because of the early results of the crime program.

The claims of over-incarceration were only heard well after the fact. And those complaints that were heard came largely by those who had no solutions to offer for the initial problem.

Such sweeping statements are simply not correct. They are similar to those who claim that ‘everyone’ at the time thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was an imminent threat to the US, when actually that was a convenient post hoc rationalization used to evade blame for a catastrophic war.

Elizabeth Hinton, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann and Vesla M. Weaver in a New York Times op-ed challenge the view promoted by the Clintons and their supporters that the black community endorsed his particular 1994 Crime Bill.

There’s no question that by the early 1990s, blacks wanted an immediate response to the crime, violence and drug markets in their communities. But even at the time, many were asking for something different from the crime bill. Calls for tough sentencing and police protection were paired with calls for full employment, quality education and drug treatment, and criticism of police brutality.

It’s not just that those demands were ignored completely. It’s that some elements were elevated and others were diminished—what we call selective hearing. Policy makers pointed to black support for greater punishment and surveillance, without recognizing accompanying demands to redirect power and economic resources to low-income minority communities. When blacks ask for better policing, legislators tend to hear more instead.

While supporting the idea of addressing crime, members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the bill itself and introduced an alternative bill that included investments in prevention and alternatives to incarceration, devoted $2 billion more to drug treatment and $3 billion more to early intervention programs. The caucus also put forward the Racial Justice Act, which would have made it possible to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge death sentences

Given the history of selective hearing, what followed was no surprise. Black support for anti-crime legislation was highlighted, while black criticism of the specific legislation was tuned out. The caucus threatened to stall the bill, but lawmakers scrapped the Racial Justice Act when Republicans promised to filibuster any legislation that adopted its measures.

Charles P. Pierce walks us through the history that led to the bill and the forces that shaped it.

Since we’re going to be arguing about it for a while, let us stipulate that when Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime and Control Act in 1994 he did not single-handedly launch the destructive effects of mass incarceration and racial disparity in our legal system. What he did was put a conservative Democratic gloss on a process that began in the modern era with Lyndon Johnson’s Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968, and that accelerated with Ronald Reagan’s Omnibus Crime Bill in 1984. But that very fact clinches the case that the current critics of the 1994 bill—which Clinton himself has admitted was a mistake—are trying to make against it. It was one piece of a decades-old bipartisan “anti-crime” crusade that turned into an unthinking beast in our democracy, the damage from which fell most harshly on racial minorities, especially African Americans. It doesn’t lessen the culpability of Clinton’s bill that it was part of a 30-year effort that came to what are now seen as inevitably destructive conclusions. It amplifies it.

Let us also stipulate, because we are not five years old, that there were more than a few triangulated political motives for Clinton’s having signed the bill. After all, his administration was a triumph for the politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, the famously business-friendly conservative Democratic operation that rose to power first as an opposition force to the New Deal liberalism of people like George McGovern and Walter Mondale, and then evolved into an opposition force to the new progressive coalition that had lined up behind Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. (Jackson memorably once cracked that DLC stood for “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”) By the time Clinton came around to run for president, the DLC was dedicated to protecting the victories it had won over McGovern and Mondale against the forces within the party that Jackson’s campaigns had empowered. Clinton, because he once was a brilliant politician, managed to keep both of these horses in harness, but there was no doubt where his policy heart lay—hence, the crime bill, which did not launch the era of mass incarceration, but added to it immeasurably.

To paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Moynihan, the Clintons are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own history. There seems little question that President Bill Clinton had good intentions, but also that he bargained those away in an attempt to produce a bill aimed mostly at quieting the fears of white suburban Democrats. They were, after all, his base.

But the Clintons are notorious for trying to rewrite history to make them seem as if they were always on the right side of it. Being ‘tough on crime’, which usually means throwing poor people and minorities in jail while letting the wealthy criminals get away scot free, has always been politically popular with the ruling class and the Clintons are always faithful to their wishes.


  1. says

    The Clintons and their supporters have gone into damage control mode and it has followed the usual pattern of suggesting that ‘everyone’ agreed on that policy at that time and that it is now Monday morning quarterbacks who are complaining with the benefit of hindsight.

    The only “hindsight” is the Clintons, Bush regime and the corporate media looking over their shoulder, now that they are being held accountable for their words.

    It’s easier to rewrite the past and pretend there was no opposition to bad policy (the “crime bill”, illegal wars, climate change, etc.) than it is to answer the questions people were asking at the time.


  2. Holms says

    Astonishing just how easy it is to detect the pattern in what was and was not implemented. If it empowered the…
    Government: implemented.
    Proles: not implemented.

  3. lorn says

    Sooo … you want to tar Hillary because she was first lady when Bill signed the 94 crime bill? A bill that Bernie sanders voted for, even as Hillary did not.

  4. says

    I agree with lorn. The crime bill is not Hillary’s legacy. The string of foreign policy failures (drone wars, ukraine, libya, yemen, palestine) on her watch ought to suffice to disqualify her in any decent person’s choice.

  5. Mano Singham says

    lorn @#3,

    I am not sure who you mean by ‘you’, whether me or the first two commenters, but note that the post was a response to arguments made by apologists like you for the 1994 crime bill. I did not say that she was responsible for the crime bill but I do say that she, like Bill, has long practiced the art of trying to rewrite history in her favor.

  6. lorn says

    I used the term “you” as reference to ‘to whom it may concern’.

    Lots of minds already made up. Largely it is a matter of Clinton rules: every accusation must be taken at face value until proved otherwise, and Dowd rules: every rumor becomes an accepted fact after being repeated a few times. That Democrats, or Progressives, would buy into to Republican generated drumbeat and the exact same tactics is disgusting.

    Lots of history being rewritten. It helps that I was there at the time. The main concern from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was presented in the context of the damage caused by the previous crime bills produced and signed by Reagan in 1984 and the federal guidelines passed in the same year. These included mandatory minimums, potential increased increases in penalties for gang related activities, and increased penalties for crack over powder.

    Yes, the CBC did push for alternatives but nobody in their right mind saw their alternatives as more than a long term option that wouldn’t help the present desperately acute situation. The CBC proposals didn’t get much press, or traction. The story was that people were dying every night. I took extra shifts on my job so a coworker could bury his daughter who was an unintended victim in a shootout over drug territory. Everyone I knew had a story. A close call, a friend or relative shot or beaten up. In some areas kids were told by parents that if they forgot the time and it got dark to sleep over at their friend’s house rather than try to walk home. People were terrorized. Particularly in minority neighborhoods.

    Yes, investment in the poorer sections and job programs were proposed but that would take months and years to show results. And yes, people knew that increased policing would end up putting their own kids behind bars. But, as one mother put it in a public meeting that had to be held in the afternoon to avoid the crimes at night, I paraphrase but the sentiment was: ‘ I would rather have my son alive and locked up than shot dead on the streets’. If you were anywhere near the inner city you heard that a lot. More than one mother reported her own son because he would be safer in jail than on the streets. Desperate times.

    There is also the fact that the 1994 law helped rectify some of the abuses of the 1986 laws:

    Safety Valve[9] was created in 1994 to reduce mandatory sentencing for drug offenders under the following provisions:

    the defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
    the defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) in connection with the offense;
    the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
    the defendant was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in section 408 of the Controlled Substances Act; and
    not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.[9]


    But of course people like Sanders and they are desperate to favor him. So any attack on Hillary, even conflating Hillary and Bill and mis-characterizing the historical facts as experienced on the ground at the time, is allowed. Objecting to that is now rewriting history. Lots of that going around.

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