Politics & Policy

In Defense of the 1994 Crime Bill

Joe Biden speaks at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa, June 11, 2019. (Jordan Gale/Reuters)
Biden was right to advocate more policing and higher incarceration.

Harvey Dent once remarked that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. This rings true in the case of Joe Biden, although “affectionately remembered vice president” may be more apt than “hero” as a description of his glory days.

Biden has had a tough past couple of weeks. Getting demolished by Kamala Harris in the Democratic debate for his past opposition to busing was, in many ways, the culmination of months of increased scrutiny of his racial record by the woke segment of the Democratic base. Biden has also suffered a barrage of criticism for his past support of “tough-on-crime” measures, which were once uniformly popular — not least in minority communities — but are now thought passé.

One particular controversy involves Biden’s involvement in passing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, colloquially known as the “1994 crime bill.” A lengthy New York Times article published last week takes Biden to task for his role in crafting the bill, and Vox published an article days before with similar critiques. Woke Twitter — more or less synonymous with Vox in terms of ideology — has been sounding the alarm on this front for months.

The criticisms of the bill — and, by association, of Biden – start with the indictment that the U.S. incarcerates far too many people, and proceeds to the accusation that the 1994 crime bill contributed to this phenomenon, at least on the margins. Criminal-justice reform is in vogue at the moment, and its dominant assumption is that our approach to fighting crime at the end of the 20th century was categorically sinful.

But progressive attacks on the 1994 crime bill are often ignorant of the context within which it was introduced. At the moment, the popular narrative is that the bill was written by racist white politicians with little knowledge of or concern for the inner-city neighborhoods at which the legislation was aimed. The reality, however, is quite the opposite.

The 1994 crime bill was introduced during the height of the crack epidemic and the explosive spike in crime that accompanied it. Indeed, violent crime had risen dramatically over the preceding three decades, from 158 per 100,000 people in 1961 to 758 per 100,000 in 1991. America’s inner cities, in particular, were on the verge of anarchy; 2,245 people were murdered in New York City in the year 1990 alone.

Americans of all backgrounds were rightfully concerned. In the 1990s, more Americans listed crime as “the most important problem” in the country than ever before — or since. But no one was more invested in the issue than were community leaders from the predominantly black neighborhoods worst afflicted by the crime epidemic.

The 1994 crime bill was passed at the urging of, among others, a group of ten black mayors from cities including Detroit, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Denver, who wrote to Congress imploring them to pass crime-fighting legislation, citing the need to increase policing in their communities in an “all-out” effort to combat “the continuing epidemic of violent crime in our cities.” In their letter, the mayors wrote that “we cannot afford to lose the opportunities this bill provides to the people of our cities.” The bill had widespread support in black communities across America, much of which was the result of a grassroots mobilization by black pastors who saw tough-on-crime measures as needed in their neighborhoods.

The bill increased federal funding for police and prisons and enacted a host of tough sentencing policies, including the oft-derided “three strikes” provision mandating a life sentence for a violent federal offense following two previous violent felony convictions. The increased financing of police allowed cities to put more officers on the ground, the stricter sentencing kept repeat offenders locked up longer if they committed federal offenses, and the new prison funding meant that there was more space to hold criminals. As even Biden’s most ardent critics admit, the bill was just one of many factors driving up incarceration rates, which had been increasing since the 1970s. But it helped get violent criminals off the street and behind bars.

Right around the time the bill passed, the violent-crime rate began a precipitous fall. By 2011, it had reached 387 per 100,000. And even critics of mass incarceration and aggressive policing sometimes admit that these measures contributed. The Brennan Center, for instance — a public-policy institute that advocates criminal-justice reform — recently conceded that increased policing and stricter incarceration policies each caused up to 10 percent of the massive decline in crime in the 1990s. Other research has concluded that those policies were major contributing factors to that trend. At the same time, it’s clear that the bill itself was not the sole driver of mass incarceration in America, which began to climb in the 1970s, accelerated in the 1980s, and then tapered off and began falling in the 2000s.

Many critics also note the disproportionate representation of African Americans in the prison system as a reason to oppose measures like Biden’s. The explanation for the disparity, however, is quite simple: “Given the extraordinarily high involvement of African Americans in imprisonable misconduct — drug and violent crime, most obviously — this outcome was predictable, if unsettling,” writes criminologist Barry Latzer. The reason for black leaders’ aggressive lobbying on behalf of the crime bill was precisely the concentration of violent crime in their communities.

Put simply, more incarceration was necessary to end the crime epidemic. There were a lot of violent criminals, and we needed somewhere to put them. To the retrospective critics, we should ask: What would you have done with so many drug dealers and violent offenders?

To this question, my progressive friends often answer in the abstract, with some variation of “we need systematic reforms to make people less desperate and therefore not need to resort to crime.” Fine. In the meantime, however, children in inner-city Chicago still can’t walk to school safely. Activists should look to solve concrete problems rather than trying to win the approval of Vox.

To be sure, some of the criticisms of Biden’s criminal-justice legislation have merit. Some measures were not as effective as had been hoped; others appear overly harsh in retrospect. By all means, let’s have a debate about changing the law going forward. But at the time, the urgent task was to launch a swift and powerful response to the crime epidemic afflicting America’s inner cities. That the bill was imperfect does not make it shameful.

Critics of our criminal-justice system and Biden’s role in it do not seem to be concerned with such nuances. Hindsight is 20/20. And the unforgiving judgment of the Twitter mob is shortsighted.

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