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The Controversial Legacy of the 1994 Crime Bill, and Why Both Republicans and Democrats Are Calling for Reform


WASHINGTON – Just walking down your neighborhood street across America during the 1990s was scary. Crime rates were peaking as crack cocaine addiction reached epidemic proportions

"Murder rates, all violent crime rates, were up dramatically, and people were tired of it," said John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation.

So much so that 44 percent of Americans told the Gallup Organization they were afraid to walk alone at night near their house. In that same 1992 poll, 54 percent said there was more crime in their community than the year before, and people across the country felt very unsafe.

The Most Sweeping Crime Legislation in US History

The pressure was on Democrats in control of the House, Senate, and White House. President Bill Clinton was in his first term, and then-Senator Joe Biden, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, authored the 1994 Crime Bill – the most sweeping crime legislation in US history. 

While it is controversial now, at the time Biden celebrated his accomplishment. 

"I'm the guy that wrote this bill," he said in 1994. "Presumptuous thing to say, but I wrote this bill with my own little hands, and I added into the bill more than 50 death penalties."

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It also increased penalties for drug offenses, put more cops on the streets, and included the three-strikes provision that required repeat felons be put away for life.

"You must take back the streets and you take back the streets by more cops, more prisons, more physical protection for the people," Biden said back then.

To build more prisons, the bill promised states billions in federal construction money if they implemented truth-in-sentencing laws to ensure criminals serve out most of their sentences. By 1999, most states had changed or adapted their laws.

The Devastating Impact on Communities of Color

"It certainly made sense, to the extent to which you believed that there was a crime problem, to focus a lot of those dollars toward the states since you know federal criminal law enforcement is only a very small percent of people who are involved in the criminal justice system. The overwhelming number of people who are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated – that all happens at the state level. 90 some odd percent," Malcolm said.

Looking back, many Americans now criticize the Crime Bill's devastating impact on communities of color. In a recent column, Democrats from the University of Pennsylvania wrote, "Biden's 1994 Crime Bill...championed the popular 'tough on crime' approach during the country-wide escalation of policing, discriminatory stop-and-frisk tactics, mass incarceration, and the racist War on Drugs. This 'tough on crime' approach amounted to a war against Black and Brown communities through police violence, which limited economic and educational opportunities."
And as he now courts black voters to support him this fall, Biden takes an apologetic tone.

"I haven't always been right," he said at a recent event. "I know we haven't always gotten things right."

Calls for Change from Both Democrats and Republicans

He's even shifted blame onto the states he once incentivized.

"We have to say to the states, 'no more. No more mandatory minimum sentences – enough is enough.' We should be reducing those sentences," he said.

Politics aside, many criminal justice scholars agree the legacy of the 1994 Crime Bill is complicated. While crime rates fell after its passage, other tough crime measures were passed. That combination helped America rank today as number one in locking up more people per capita than any other country.

"I do think that in some respects the pendulum swung too far and that a corrective measure such as the First Step Act was an appropriate thing to do," Malcolm said.
Appropriate because it dismantles parts of the 1994 law and was supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

And as policing and racial justice are debated between now and November, expect to hear more about both measures.

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