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September 12, 2019

"The Democrats’ Shameful Legacy on Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new New Republic piece by Marie Gottschalk.  It carries this subheadline: "Bill Clinton isn't the only one who deserves blame for turning America into a carceral state."  Here are excerpts:

For decades, a growing number of Democrats had been trying to reposition themselves as the party of law enforcement and to lure white voters away from the GOP.  With Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging Clinton to seize control of the issue by “upping the ante,” Democrats and Republicans engaged in a bidding war to see who could be the toughest and meanest sheriff in town.

The $30 billion law [known as the 1994 Crime Bill], passed 25 years ago this month, was the capstone of their efforts.  It included some modest funding for crime prevention programs, such as “midnight basketball,” but its main thrust was a vast array of punitive measures.  The crime bill funded 100,000 new police officers, established a federal three-strikes law, authorized more than $12 billion to prod states to lengthen time served and build new prisons, banned certain assault weapons, created dozens of new death penalty offenses, and ended federal educational Pell grants for inmates.  The crime bill did not significantly lower crime rates; it did, however, help transform the United States into the world’s warden, incarcerating more of its residents than any other country.

The United States has now begun a long overdue national reckoning about the bill — four years ago, Hillary Clinton faced questions about her and Bill Clinton’s complicity in mass incarceration, and Biden has also had to answer for his leading role in engineering the punitive turn taken by the Democratic Party.  But this reckoning still falls far short, partly because deep misunderstandings persist about the wider impact of the bill and other get-tough measures that built the carceral state over the last five decades.

While the Clintons and Biden are guilty as charged, they had many accomplices, some of whom were not the usual suspects.  For years, House and Senate Democrats had been pushing new legislation to curb domestic violence, but it did not come up for a floor vote until the Senate incorporated the measure into the crime bill in fall 1993.  To its credit, the Violence Against Women Act heightened public awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence and provided states and communities with important new resources for crisis centers, shelters, hotlines, and prevention programs.  But VAWA also emphasized law enforcement remedies and included measures that raised serious civil rights concerns — all with the help of many national and local organizations working against rape and domestic violence.  Many of these groups have since had second thoughts about “carceral feminism.”

During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton claimed that the crime bill was passed with strong support from African Americans who were clamoring for tough measures to halt rising crime rates.  In reality, African Americans were deeply divided over the legislation and other criminal justice issues.  These divisions have only widened in the 25 years since then, as a new generation of “post-racial” black politicians sought to appeal to white and African American voters by castigating young black men and women as addicts, drug dealers, and common street criminals.  (In one notable example from 2011, then-Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia chastised black fathers as “sperm donors” and “doggone hoodie-wearing teens.”)  With the rise of Black Lives Matter, however, these and other activists are at last calling attention to the ways in which mass incarceration constitutes a new system of social control, one with disturbing parallels to the old Jim Crow era.

This stark reality is now a leading public issue, as it should be.  But it overshadows the deepening impact of the carceral state on other demographic groups.  The incarceration rate for white Americans — about 633 per 100,000 residents — appears relatively low compared to the rates for African Americans (3,044 per 100,000) and Hispanics (1,305 per 100,000), but it is more than ten times the national incarceration rates of certain Western European countries.  All told, half of all adults in the United States — or about 113 million people — have seen an immediate family member go to jail or prison for at least one night.

September 12, 2019 at 04:24 PM | Permalink


The shameful legacy should include AEDPA.

Posted by: ? | Sep 12, 2019 11:09:12 PM

This is a well written article and the topic needs more attention in America. And yes I blame Bill and Hillary. And the Dems. We need to eliminate the judicial immunity factor in civil rights suits. A judge who sends someone to jail for failure to pay a ten dollar fine needs to be sued for damages in federal court under the civil rights statutes and should be removed from his job by declaratory judgment and injunction. The cities should also pay attorneys fees to prevailing plaintiffs. Those who steal should not be allowed to squel. You too Judge!

Posted by: Liberty2nd | Sep 13, 2019 7:44:50 AM

If the Democrats continue to out-right wing the G.O.P. on the "law and order" and "victims' rights" issues, then they deserve to lose in 2020 even if this risks more G.O.P. gains. To get my vote, the Democrats need to repudiate this right-wing agenda.

Posted by: William Delzell | Sep 13, 2019 9:38:09 AM

Surely police corruption is a greater cause. Federal prisons have only a small part of the US inmate population. Corrupt police departments send the wrong person to prison all the time. This leaves the actual criminal unpunished and free to commit another crime, possibly sending another innocent person to prison, and so on ad infinitum. Hence Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and Philly manage to have both sky-high crime rates and sky-high incarceration level.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Sep 13, 2019 11:06:42 PM

i blame a lot more than them. the handful of us who were against the crime bill and the aedpa were not treated well by many who now decry those bills.

Posted by: bigbadwolf | Sep 16, 2019 11:46:04 PM

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