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April 10, 2016

The many challenges of a fully nuanced understanding of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill

Blog_prison_population_crime_bill_0The notable interchange a few days ago between former Prez Bill Clinton and protestors (noted here) has brought renewed attention to the contributions of the 1994 "Clinton" Crime Bill to mass incarceration and the massive reduction in modern crime rates.  Like every other important criminal justice story, there is considerable nuance to fully understanding (1) just what the 1994 Crime Bill did (and did not do), and (2) just what this single piece of federal legislation has produced with respect to crime and punishment two decades later.  Also full of considerable nuance is the role and record of Prez Bill Clinton (and now Prez candidate Hillary Clinton) on criminal justice reforms past and present.

All the political, policy and practical dynamics of the Clintons' record and the 1994 Crime Bill justifies considerable scholarly commentary, and lots of important nuances cannot be fully captured by soundbites or brief blog postings. Nevertheless, I thought it might be useful here, in service to encouraging a richer understanding of all these matters, to collect below a number of notable commentaries I have seen that help highlight why any simple account of the Clintons, crime, punishment and the 1994 Crime Bill is likely to be simply wrong:

UPDATE:  Here is another recent addition to this list via the New York Times: "Prison Rate Was Rising Years Before 1994 Law"

April 10, 2016 at 03:54 PM | Permalink


What I think that much of the debate over the 1994 bill misses is the cultural climate (as opposed to the political climate) that existed at the time. I don't doubt that the bill was well-intentioned and I don't doubt that the politicians were responding to real fears on the part of the public which was based on real on the ground events. What they failed to take into account was the existing ethos of police and prosecutors. These men (and a few women) did not care about the political side--what they saw was huge amounts of money following into their coffers and they saw it as a type of self-vindication for the way they had always done business: shoot first, shoot from the hip, never give the public an even break. So while there may have been legitimate moral motivations and reasonable public policy, Congress trusted too much in the men in blue and the judicial system as a whole to "do the right thing". Instead, police and prosecutors did what was in the best interest of police and prosecutors.

So there really isn't anything new to the 1994 crime bill. It is the way the politics in the this country usually works: the public complains, the politicians throw money at the problem, and then everyone prays. When the prayers' aren't answered, everyone looks for someone else to blame.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 10, 2016 9:40:27 PM

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