It’s not often a two-decade-old law becomes the hot potato of politics, but here we are: Bill Clinton last week found himself facing down protesters in Philadelphia, defending the 1994 crime bill. Black Lives Matter protesters say the bill, which ratcheted up sentences for an array of crimes, has devastated African-American communities by putting so many black men in jail. Defenders, like Clinton last week, say it was needed to counter a devastating crime wave.
What is the legacy of the bill? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
If Bill Clinton were less defensive, he might’ve tried calmly explaining why he signed the 1994 crime bill — and acknowledged its shortcomings.
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He might’ve explained that yes, the bill contained a “three strikes” provision that created automatic life sentences for those convicted of a violent felony after two previous convictions — but explained why an extraordinary murder rate seemed, at the time, to make it necessary.
“We had gang warfare on the streets,” he might’ve said. “We had little children being shot dead on the streets who were just innocent bystanders standing in the wrong place.
“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. 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 people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
Here’s the interesting thing: Clinton did say that — last year, in a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He knows he 1994 crime bill was imperfect.
What people who are too young to remember the 1990s should know: It was a genuinely scary time. Yes, there was an overreaction and the creation of myths like “superpredators,” and that added to the hysteria. But the truth is this: In 1990, there were 2,605 murders in New York City alone. In 2014, there were 617. Similar numbers can be found all over the country. Americans, not unreasonably, wanted action.
What people who took that action should realize: They overreached. In 1990, there were more than 773,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons; that number had doubled by 2014. The U.S. has far and away the highest incarceration rate in the world; the result has been devastating to communities and many individual lives. It’s far past time to correct that.
We can’t undo 1994. We can learn from it. Let’s make sure we learn the right lessons.
Here’s a fact that Black Lives Matter activists and their liberal allies ignore at their peril: If 1994 rates of violent crime had kept up through 2014, about 15 million more violent crimes would have been committed against black people. According to a Manhattan Institute analysis, that works out to about 7.2 million aggravated assaults, 7.3 million robberies, 334,000 sexual assaults and nearly 130,000 homicides.
Those black lives matter, don’t they?
As criminologist Barry Latzer shows in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, greater imprisonment undoubtedly helped reduce the crime rate. It should be pretty obvious. Criminals are less likely to rob, rape and kill if they’re locked up.
But, as Latzer notes, “while greater imprisonment helped reduce crime, it hit black males especially hard.”
“Given the extraordinarily high involvement of African Americans in imprisonable misconduct — drug and violent crime, most obviously — this outcome was predictable, if unsettling,” he writes. That’s for sure. But the upshot is black communities were made considerably safer.
People end up in prison for a reason, and it rarely has to do with minor stuff like drug possession. My Manhattan Institute colleague Heather Mac Donald often reminds her audiences that prison is a “lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal offending.”
In 2013, only 3.6 percent of state prisoners were serving time for possession. It’s a similar story at the federal level. Less than 1 percent of drug offenders sentenced in federal court in 2014 were convicted for simple possession, and the vast majority of those were plea-bargained down from felony trafficking charges.
No law is ever perfect, and the policies that helped put the U.S. violent crime rate in check were the result of plenty of trial and error. Fact is, the 1994 crime bill and its successor in 1996 did a lot of good. And as Mac Donald says, “Compared with the costs of crime, prison is a bargain.”
But that’s a lesson we seem to be on the verge of forgetting — to the great detriment of black lives.
Ben Boychuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (email@example.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.