Criminal law

Did the 1994 Crimes Bill cause mass incarceration?


The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known as the Crime Bill, was sponsored by Joe Biden 26 years ago. It is often blamed for expanding hardline anti-crime policies that excessively criminalize black Americans. Is this story guaranteed? The issue is complex, but we will do our best to understand it.

Although the 2020 Democratic National Convention mentioned the Violence Against Women Act, it did not address the more controversial parts of the crime bill. But since the start of his presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden has been asked repeatedly about his role in creating this bill. It came during his running mate selection that Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Karen Bass, who was also running for vice president, responded with a clever history lesson. despite of bass She stated that she would have opposed the bill had she been in Congress at the time, and said, “I understand very well why our elected officials did what they did, because masses of people in these communities were asking for it.”

Rep. Bass is right. According to a 1994 Gallup poll, 58% of African Americans supported the crime bill, compared to 49% of white Americans. Most black mayors, who were grappling with a record wave of violent crime, did, too. A. also joined A delegation of mayors While pressing Congress to support the bill, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmuck said, “We’re trying very hard to make clear to Congress that this is an issue that needs bipartisan support.”

In a recent interview, Rep. James Clyburn, a member of the House leadership and one of the most powerful African-American elected officials, spoke about his reasons for voting for the bill. “Crack cocaine was a blight on the black community” He remembers. “They wanted to get it out of those communities, and they were very tough on drugs. And that’s why your members really, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted for the 1994 crime bill.

As Yale law professor James Forman Jr. wrote in his much-cited 2017 book, Lock up our own“At the height of the (crack) epidemic, black political and civic leaders often compared crack to the greatest evil African Americans had ever suffered.” It was written twenty years ago by another prominent African American scholar, Harvard Law Professor Randall KennedyHe argued that “Black people have suffered more from being left unprotected or inadequately protected by law enforcement than from being mistreated as suspects or accused” (“unprotected or unprotected” is an interesting and important choice of words, which we’ll go back to).

Against this background, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation considered its options. The bill included several provisions they objected to, such as giving states incentives to implement mandatory minimum sentences and preventing people currently in prison from receiving Pell Scholarships for education. At the same time, the bill provided significant funding for crime prevention, including community policing, drug treatment, and youth programs. It also included the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which dramatically reduced domestic violence cases, and a ban on assault weapons, which helped reduce firearms. homicide rate.

Finally, Maryland State Representative Kwesi Mfumi, then-Chairman of the Radio and Television Corporation, said, “We set our goal Seal approved this bill.” Two-thirds of the CBC’s members voted in favor of its passage, as did the only black senator at the time, Carol Moseley Brown of Illinois. But key CBC members They voted no On the bill, including John Lewis, Maxine Waters, John Conyers, and Charles Rangel. Like members of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the mid-1990s, Rep. Bass’s comments made it clear that she believed “there is another way to go.” However, she reminded us of the importance of complexity and nuance when looking at a politician’s record from decades past.

It’s easy to play quarterback on Monday morning. But did the controversial Crimes Bill of 1994 reduce violence while increasing mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system?

Let’s start with the facts. Between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1990s, the overall violent crime rate more than doubled before reaching a peak in 1991 and beginning a long-term decline that brought the rate down to levels in the early 1970s. the homicide rate It followed a similar pattern, with less divergence between the tops and bottoms. Between 1980 and 2006, the incarceration rate more than quadrupled before it began a long-term decline that brought it down to where it was when the Crime Bill was enacted in 1994. Since 2006, prison rates It decreased by 17% for white Americans, 26% for Hispanics, and 34% for African Americans.

Did the Crime Bill 1994 help reduce the rate of violent crime? Perhaps, though, the rate had begun to decline before the bill took effect. Did the draft law contribute to the expansion of imprisonment? And again, that might be the case, although the bulk of the growth occurred in the fifteen years before the bill was passed, and then it declined significantly for the nearly fifteen years.

But one thing is clear: the 1994 bill interacted with – and reinforced – a hugely problematic existing piece of legislation: the Drug Abuse Control Act of 1986, which created huge differences in provisions between crack and cocaine powder. Under this bill, a person would be sentenced to at least five years in prison for possession of five grams of cocaine, but it would take 500 grams of cocaine powder to trigger the same sentence. Because crack is a cheaper alternative to cocaine powder, it is more popular in lower-income neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are more likely to be predominantly black and in urban areas that can be over-policed ​​more easily than in rural or suburban areas. while the The Fair Penalties Act 2010which was passed during the Obama-Biden administration, reduced the disparity between cocaine and crack from 100:1 to 18:1, and the damage was done, and its effects continue to this day.

In the absence of the 1986 Narcotics Control Bill, the effects of the 1994 law on extended prison rates would have been less severe. But as James Claiborne’s comments show, tough drug control was a major goal of the 1994 bill, not an unintended by-product.

Let’s go back to Professor Kennedy’s “unprotected or unprotected” comment. CBC members claim they want Better police work to black communities and nothing more. And that’s a complicated thing for people to explain, especially when opinion polls show that More than 80% are black We want more police presence, not less. Often, surveys don’t ask the right kind of questions about policing, and they can be complex and nuanced. Here’s what we mean:

The police respond slower to calls for service in black communities. Ambulance services are more responsive in black communities than in white communities several minutes slower. If someone is having a stroke or heart attack, these minutes are often a matter of life and death.

In addition, the violent crime removal rate is unacceptably low. For most black people, the police seem to care little about their communities, their deceased loved ones, and their private lives. So, when black people say “more policing,” they mean better than what they have and similar to what majority white communities receive. Black people want the police to test their neighborhoods and actually engage in community policing rather than over-policing their neighborhoods and harassing black drivers and youth while responding too slowly when they are most needed.

Understandably, many people look to the Crimes Bill 1994 as the main source of the problems we discuss here, even if the truth is much more complex. However, after half a century of the era of tough crime control that began with Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, it is time to rethink police and prison policies with our eyes firmly fixed on the inequalities they created and the harm they did. As with the ills they were created to mitigate.

This is not to demonize the police, who have been given one of the most demanding jobs in our society. It means making clear their mission and providing resources and personnel to deal with problems, such as dealing with people with mental health conditions, that the police should not be expected to tackle alone. But it also means fair and equal treatment for all communities – and full and timely accountability for law enforcement personnel who fail to meet this standard.


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