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July 3, 2020

Effective review of the 1994 Crime Bill's complicated legacy

USA Today has this effective new piece about the impact and import of the 1994 Crime Bill under the headline "Fact check: 1994 crime bill did not bring mass incarceration of Black Americans."  I recommend the whole thing, and here are excerpts:

The 1994 crime bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, was a grab-bag of crime-fighting measures, ranging from three-strike provisions mandating a life sentence for repeat offenders and funding for states to hire 100,000 additional police officers, to a Violence Against Women Act.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, then-Sen. Joe Biden drafted the bill, known formally as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was billed by Democrats as a major crackdown on crime....

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy think tank, says one of the most significant and long-lasting impacts of the legislation was the enticement to states to build or expand correctional facilities through the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Grants Program....

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a campaign to end life imprisonment, told USA TODAY that the 1994 crime bill certainly encouraged the use of expanded incarceration by providing funding to the states for prison construction.  But he added that "mass incarceration was already well under way prior to the adoption of that legislation."...

Regarding mass incarceration of Black Americans, the issue plays out against the reality of longstanding racial disparities in imprisonment rates....  A report on "Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment across States and Over Time," published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2019, found that a large increase in Black imprisonment is traceable in many states to the crack epidemic in the mid-1980s.

This disparity, the report says, began to ease starting in the 1990s.  "Whatever its other effects, this suggests that the 1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment," the report said....

Our research finds that while the crime bill did increase the prison population in states, it did not bring about a mass incarceration relative to earlier years.  Rather, it coincided with a slowdown in the annual grown of the state and federal prison population. Nor did it bring about mass incarceration of Black people, compared to before the bill was passed.

This USA Today piece references and links to some effective research on this topic, although it does not mention the papers recently published by the Council of Criminal Justice on this topic (one of which I authored).  These CCJ papers provide a similar accounting of the impact of the 1994 Crime Bill:

July 3, 2020 at 09:58 PM | Permalink



Thank you, as always.

Some additions:

" . . . criminologist Alfred Blumstein determined in 1993 that "blacks were significantly underrepresented in prison for homicide compared with their presence in the arrest data." (1)

"For the White–Black comparisons, (nationally) the Black level is 12.7 times greater than the White level for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault. (5)"

"The Misplaced Criticism of President Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill" (9)

RONALD BROWNSTEIN, senior editor, The Atlantic:

"The historical record doesn’t support the left’s now-common assertion that the (Clinton) crime bill was primarily a politically motivated concession by Clinton to white racial backlash. While Clinton undoubtedly considered the bill part of his effort to rebuild the Democrats’ national coalition after its collapse during the 1980s, he believed the best way to do that was to make genuine progress against a rising tide of violent crime."

"In July 1994, ten African American Democratic mayors—including those from Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Denver—urged Congress to approve the (Clinton Crime Bill), even after House and Senate negotiators removed from the final bill a House-passed provision making it easier for prisoners on death row to challenge their sentences as racially discriminatory." " . . . the black mayors wrote, they did not believe (the death penalty issue) should outweigh other elements in the bill that they valued—particularly new federal funding to hire more police and launch prevention program for at-risk young people."

“We cannot afford to lose the opportunities (The Clinton Crime) bill provides to the people of our cities," the mayors wrote.

The urgency was based upon all time record violent crime rates in 1991/1992 (rate of 758) (10), concentrated in minority communities. The violent crime rate dropped 50% between 1991/1992 and 2018 (rate of 380.6) (10), a violent crime rate that hadn't been that low in 48 years (10) . . . a combination of the Clinton Crime Bill, the increase in the prison population, better policing, among others.

“The renaissance of American cities is one of the great stories of the last quarter century and cities had their backs against the wall because of crime and violence in the early 1990s. It was impossible to make economic progress without restoring order and mayors...community leaders and police were crying for help.” " . . . the legislation was a bipartisan effort addressing a genuine need." (9)

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jul 4, 2020 8:30:43 AM

My opinion only: Used to be that 20 years meant life in prison. Today the uninformed Juror has been used against the people in many instances. Incompetent Prosecutors and Judges have joined together for self profit in many County's. A prosecutor will pad the charges to make sure he gets some sort of conviction even with NO evidence. There must be accountability for those taking an Oath of Office. If any public official does wrong, there should be a Data base so they no longer work for the people. In that way they can't go to a neighboring community and be hired. Stripped of their benefits is a must.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Jul 4, 2020 12:35:11 PM

Even though I am now a prosecutor, I supported the truth in sentencing provisions in the crime bill based on my experience as a public defender and a law student aiding prisoners at parole hearings. It was not unusual for clients to want to know what their sentence really meant in terms of time served. An answer that "you will probably do X, but the parole board could make you do more," while accurate, was also likely to leave a significant percentage of clients unhappy in several years when the parole board decided to make them serve more time. And it led to judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys playing a guessing game in trying to adjust the nominal sentence to get the "correct" time served.

My disappointment with how states reacted to the grants is that they did not follow through more fully on the concepts underlying truth in sentencing. Too many of the states limited truth in sentencing to the most violent offenders. And almost none of them followed through on the next logical step -- adjusting sentencing ranges downward to keep the same desired ranges of time served.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 6, 2020 12:25:17 PM

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