Criminal justice reform is an issue that’s uniting the left and the right, and there’s some talk about reform on the Hill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have a bill on prison reform. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have a bill aimed at dealing with the inequities within mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Lee has credited Obama for his engagement on this issue, and Obama seems to have liked Lee’s legislation. Its cosponsors include Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Al Franken (D-MN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). Almost one-third of Americans have criminal records, which impacts our economic viability and drains our resources that keep people, the vast majority of them nonviolent drug offenders, behind bars. It’s highly unsustainable, and other left/right organizations have created the Coalition for Public Safety to tackle the issue of reform. Yet, the prison population explosion has its roots in Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
Today, many view parts of the bill, specifically ones that deal with prison sentencing, as major errors in public policy. Progressives and other pro-criminal justice system reform advocates point to the Violent Crime Control Act as one of sources that threw due process on a fiscally reckless and immoral track. Even Bill Clinton has disavowed his crime bill, but should he get a pass? First, let’s go over one positive and negative aspect of this bill.
It provided funds to put another 100,000 police officers on the street. At the same time, one of its subsections included the terribly inefficient (and possibly unconstitutional) assault weapons ban that did little to curb gun homicides. This provision expired in 2004. And speaking on homicides, 1993 marked the year where gun homicides reached its peak. Across the country, the crack cocaine epidemic was proving to be a highly destructive, and New York City was something of a nightmare. In fact, for nearly a quarter century, the Big Apple was a cesspool for crime. Here is the FBI crime statistics of how awful things were, and how they’ve improved dramatically.
Something had to be done, and looking “soft on crime” simply wasn’t an option for lawmakers who lived in a news cycle that posited that crime could only go up. Even today, being viewed as soft on crime could be a point of contention in an election. So, while Bill Clinton might disavow his bill–and say it was a mistake–perhaps he’s being too hard on himself given that he needed to do something to address our out of control crime rates at the time. He's even acknowledged this when apologizing for the law's unforeseen impacts. Nevertheless, it did dole out some political dividends, though not at first. It was signed into law in August of 1994, and the assault weapons ban portion proved to be one of the many reasons why Democrats lost control on Congress during the midterm elections. Then again, once its effects were felt by the time Clinton prepped for his 1996 re-election campaign, slick Willy had the added bonus of running on a strong economy and being tough on crime. He went on to trounce Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) in the general. Nevertheless, in 2015, Clinton is taking responsibility for what he thinks only exacerbated the problem:
"I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it," Clinton said at the NAACP's convention in Philadelphia, a day after President Obama highlighted criminal justice reform there.
"In that bill, there were longer sentences. And most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend," Clinton said. "And that was overdone. We were wrong about that. That percentage of it, we were wrong about."
"The good news is we had the biggest drop in crime in history. The bad news is we had a lot of people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
In May, he noted the disproportionate allocation of resources on this issue:
“We have too many people in prison. And we wound up spending — putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out that they could live productive lives.”
Still, he said the blame for some of the harshest provisions should fall partially on others whom he suggested would not have voted for the bill had it not included some of the harsher measures.
“But I wanted to pass the bill and so I did go along with it,” Clinton said.
For now, we’re living in a relatively safe time. Violent crime has been on a steady decline ever since the Clinton’s crime bill was passed, yet the reasons for the drop is somewhat disputed. Some have theorized that the prosperous economy that occurred during the Clinton era was partially responsible, though there is a rather grisly hypothesis that legalized abortion–thanks to Roe v. Wade–provided one of the biggest reasons for the drop in crime. The reduction in unwanted kids, who are usually neglected, therefore, susceptible to falling into a criminal life, were never able to reach the age (16-24) where such felonious behavior would start. So, with legalized abortion, the demographic most at risk for crime were reduced, albeit horrifically.
Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics goes into this theory, which was also reported on by John Stossel, which has angered the left and the right, with liberals calling the theory racist and conservatives saying that abortion is murder.
The debate goes on, but there seems to be a consensus that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed. Some of the catalysts for mass incarceration can be found in Clinton’s crime bill, though it was probably appropriate for its time. Nevertheless, laws, good and bad, take a long time to be repealed, reformed, or updated. That’s how our system works. It’s also the safest way to address these issues. Clinton’s crime bill had come good provisions and some bad ones; it’s time to fix the bad. Yet, I think the 42nd president goes a bit far to disavow this piece of legislation.