POLITICAL CONNECTIONS

Myths About Clinton’s Crime Bill

While the legislation led to excessive incarceration, it helped drive the violent crime rate to its lowest level since 1970.

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
April 13, 2016, 8 p.m.

At a par­tic­u­larly pre­cari­ous mo­ment dur­ing the con­gres­sion­al man­euv­er­ing over the 1994 crime bill, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton re­ceived a power­ful en­dorse­ment from an in­flu­en­tial group on the de­bate’s front lines. In Ju­ly 1994, 10 Afric­an-Amer­ic­an Demo­crat­ic may­ors—in­clud­ing those from De­troit, At­lanta, Clev­e­land, and Den­ver—urged Con­gress to ap­prove the meas­ure, even after House and Sen­ate ne­go­ti­at­ors re­moved a pro­vi­sion that would have made it easi­er for pris­on­ers on death row to chal­lenge their sen­tences as ra­cially dis­crim­in­at­ory.

While they sup­por­ted that idea, the black may­ors did not be­lieve its de­mise out­weighed the bill’s pos­it­ive ele­ments—par­tic­u­larly new fed­er­al fund­ing to hire more po­lice and for a pre­ven­tion pro­gram for at-risk young people. “We can­not af­ford to lose the op­por­tun­it­ies this bill provides to the people of our cit­ies,” the may­ors wrote.

That frag­ment of for­got­ten his­tory il­lu­min­ates two key points about the 1994 crime bill, which has ree­m­erged as a flash point in the primary cam­paign between Bernie Sanders and Hil­lary Clin­ton, par­tic­u­larly after Bill Clin­ton’s heated en­counter with pro­test­ers from the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment last week in Phil­adelphia.

One is that the le­gis­la­tion was a genu­ine com­prom­ise that ad­vanced pri­or­it­ies of Left and Right—but also re­quired con­ces­sions from each side. The second is that the his­tor­ic­al re­cord doesn’t sup­port the Left’s as­ser­tion that the 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, he be­lieved the best way to do that was to make genu­ine pro­gress against a rising tide of vi­ol­ent crime.

“It was im­possible to make eco­nom­ic pro­gress without restor­ing or­der, and may­ors … com­munity lead­ers, and po­lice were cry­ing for help,” says Bruce Reed, Clin­ton’s chief do­mest­ic policy ad­viser in the White House. The 1994 crime bill was far from per­fect. But today’s sharpest cri­ti­cism of the le­gis­la­tion—en­cap­su­lated by the Phil­adelphia pro­test­er’s sign last week that read “Clin­ton crime bill des­troyed our com­munit­ies”—ig­nores the genu­ine need the bill ad­dressed.

Fueled by soar­ing crack use, the vi­ol­ent-crime rate in­creased by over 25 per­cent from 1980 through 1992. By the early 1990s, the murder rate in the na­tion’s largest cit­ies peaked at over 30 per 100,000 res­id­ents; in New York City alone, 2,245 people were murdered in 1990. This vi­ol­ence most heav­ily af­flic­ted Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, His­pan­ic, and low-in­come com­munit­ies. In late 1993, a task force of may­ors (chaired by Wel­ling­ton Webb, the black may­or of Den­ver) urged Clin­ton to mount an “all-out” fed­er­al ef­fort against “the con­tinu­ing epi­dem­ic of vi­ol­ent crime in our cit­ies.”

The crime bill blen­ded pri­or­it­ies of Clin­ton and con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats—prin­cip­ally, more money to hire 100,000 po­lice of­ficers, fund­ing for en­hanced pre­ven­tion pro­grams, and a ban on semi­auto­mat­ic as­sault weapons—with the top goal of con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, big grants to states to build more pris­ons. Both sides con­trib­uted to a com­plex mix of sen­ten­cing changes that ex­pan­ded fed­er­al man­dat­ory-min­im­um sen­tences and re­quired states (as a con­di­tion of ob­tain­ing the pris­on money) to toughen sen­tences for vi­ol­ent of­fend­ers, but also ex­per­i­mented with al­tern­at­ives such as boot camps and drug courts. Sev­er­al lead­ing Afric­an-Amer­ic­an le­gis­lat­ors, in­clud­ing John Con­yers and Max­ine Wa­ters, op­posed the fi­nal bill, but many oth­ers, such as James Cly­burn and Kweisi Mfume, sup­por­ted it—as did lead­ing His­pan­ic and white lib­er­als, from Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez to Dick Durbin and then-Rep. Bernie Sanders.

Bill Clin­ton has cor­rectly con­ceded that some of these changes were “overly broad” and ac­cel­er­ated a trend to­ward ex­cess­ive in­car­cer­a­tion that most crim­in­al-justice ex­perts say was primar­ily rooted in fed­er­al and state de­cisions dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two dec­ades. But that’s only part of the crime bill’s leg­acy. The vi­ol­ent-crime rate has plummeted by nearly 50 per­cent since 1994, back to its low­est level since 1970. Across the 30 largest cit­ies, the murder rate has dropped by about two-thirds since 1990. While the crime bill was not the prin­cip­al factor in those de­clines—which re­search­ers have struggled to pre­cisely ex­plain—most stud­ies agree the le­gis­la­tion con­trib­uted to the gains, par­tic­u­larly by en­abling cit­ies to hire more po­lice of­ficers and re­quir­ing them to move in­to street patrols.

Clin­ton wanted to act against crime partly to blunt its use as a wedge is­sue against Demo­crats. But he be­lieved the best way “to ad­dress that was by tak­ing ser­i­ously the prob­lem of crime,” says Mi­chael Wald­man, Clin­ton’s former chief speech­writer and now pres­id­ent of the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Justice. On crime, Clin­ton be­lieved his sig­na­ture for­mu­la­tion of ex­pand­ing op­por­tun­ity while de­mand­ing per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity offered the ap­proach most likely to pro­duce pro­gress, not only polit­ic­ally but also sub­stant­ively. The crime bill’s im­pact was al­ways con­strained by the lim­its of Wash­ing­ton’s con­trol of poli­cing, a pre­pon­der­antly loc­al activ­ity. And in some ways the bill un­ques­tion­ably mis­fired. But on the whole it did more to ad­vance than im­pede the on­go­ing re­viv­al of Amer­ica’s largest cit­ies.

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