Looking back on the 1994 crime bill that he signed, Bill Clinton is probably wishing it had included a shorter statute of limitations -- not on crimes but on presidential responsibility. Today he finds himself pilloried for something he claimed as an achievement. An issue that once was a political asset for him is now a liability for his wife.
The bill was an ungainly conglomerate of just about every idea anyone had for combating crime. It expanded the number of offenses punishable by death, banned "assault weapons" and included a "three strikes" provision imposing a life sentence for anyone convicted of a serious violent felony after two previous convictions on similar charges. With a price tag of $33 billion, it allocated funds for state prison construction, battered women's shelters, community policing and "midnight basketball" in troubled neighborhoods.
It got through Congress with support from both parties and members ranging from John Kasich to Bernie Sanders. Some black mayors supported it, as did the Congressional Black Caucus, though with reservations. President Clinton said, "It puts the government firmly on the side of the people who abide by the law, not the criminals who break it."
Much of it was an exercise in empty symbolism, like the stuff on the death penalty and military-style guns. It put too much emphasis on punishment, spent money on programs of questionable value and had no significant effect on the problem it addressed. Its defects were apparent at the time even to scribes like me, whose warnings landed on deaf ears.
The measure was an attempt to deal with an epidemic of crime and violence. It was also an effort by Democrats to protect themselves from perennial Republican attacks on them for allegedly being soft on crime.
Trying to understand the 1994 crime bill without acknowledging the level of fear and the volume of mayhem then is like trying to explain McCarthyism without mentioning Josef Stalin. But like the Red Scare, this response was largely misinformed and misdirected.
The most notable consequence was a proliferation of prisons. The nation's inmate population ballooned from about 1 million in 1994 to more than 1.6 million in 2008. The increase was intentional. What most Democrats and Republicans agreed on in 1994 was that the best thing to do with criminals was to put them behind bars -- and the longer the better.
It sounds like a foolproof solution: Take offenders off the streets and they can't offend. In practice, though, removing one criminal often just makes room for another one. A 2014 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that while more incarceration may have made a difference, "the magnitude of the reduction is highly uncertain" but "unlikely to have been large."
The crime bill deserves only some of the blame for the surge in incarceration. The boom began in the 1980s, but crime rates soared anyway. That paradox might have been a clue that penitentiaries were not a miracle cure.
But the logic of the supporters has always been of the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose variety. If we lock up more people and crime subsides, it proves they were right. If you lock up more people and crime increases, it indicates we didn't lock up enough people.
That plan to add 100,000 cops, like most politicians' promises, didn't come true. The Justice Department's inspector general put the actual number at 60,000. And some of the officers were hired in places where they weren't needed and couldn't do much good, since the program sent federal money to serene communities, as well as those plagued by daily gunfire.
In any event, having more cops doesn't necessarily result in less felonious activity. Most studies find that adding police manpower achieves nothing in this realm. "The moderate growth in policing certainly had no more than a 5 percent impact on crime rates and probably much less than that," University of California, Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring has written.
In 1994, Hillary Clinton praised the crime bill as "both smart and tough," which was half-true. Today she says that some parts of it, particularly the harsher penalties, "were a mistake." This shift echoes her reversal on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which she supported then and regrets now. Her positions have a way of evolving in perfect conformity with her political needs.
It's good for politicians to admit their mistakes. It's even better not to make them in the first place.
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