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.