President Trump and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio agree: Joe Biden should be ashamed of his support for the 1994 crime bill.
The bipartisan legislation that was long a point of pride for President Bill Clinton — who signed it into law — is now in such malodor that CNN the other day identified it in a chyron as the “infamous” crime bill.
Trump says that African-Americans won’t vote for someone who supported the crime bill, which he calls a “dark period in American history” that Biden should apologize for.” De Blasio, the no-hope presidential candidate, agrees, deeming the crime bill “a painful era in our nation’s history.”
Biden will have a lot of explaining to do about the bill, in the Democratic primaries and now, it’s clear, even in a potential general election.
The legislation was a mixed bag — including an ineffectual assault-weapons ban and billions for supposed prevention — representing the blunderbuss approach typical of sweeping bipartisan federal legislation.
But the bill was, overall, a politically necessary response to a devastating decades-long crime wave. Rather than the foundational act of the American penal state, it is best viewed as part of a much larger, long-running effort to strengthen the criminal-justice system that helped drive down crime.
It is our good fortune to have forgotten the visceral fear and loathing engendered by the crime wave beginning in the 1960s. Violent crime increased 350 percent from 1960 to 1990. Criminologist Barry Latzer points out that from 1970 to 1995, almost 675,000 people were murdered in the United States; that’s Civil War-level carnage.
The wave of murder began to break in the early 1990s, as the crack epidemic flamed out, but violent crime still increased significantly from 1987 to the early 1990s in big cities.
Charles Lane of The Washington Post notes that 49 percent of people in 1994 said crime was the top problem in the country.
This wasn’t a priority of white voters alone. The crime bill had the support of nearly 60 percent of non-whites, as well. Thirty-nine black pastors signed a letter supporting the legislation, and 10 black mayors urged the Congressional Black Caucus to back it, which most members did.
The bill’s funding of more police officers probably helped, and the emphasis on greater incarceration certainly did, as well.
It’s not true, as de Blasio says, that the “crime bill was one of the foundations of mass incarceration.”
Incarceration began to increase in the 1970s as the crime wave built, and the crime bill most directly affected the federal system, accounting for less than 10 percent of all prisoners.
The bill had incentives for states to adopt so-called truth-in-sentencing laws, but a report by the Urban Institute found it only had a marginal effect.
According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the drivers of mass incarceration were increases in prison commitments per arrest and in time served. Time served for murder went from five years in 1981 to 16.9 years in 2000, and for sexual assault from 3.4 years in 1981 to 6.6 years in 2009. Time served for aggravated assault, burglary and robbery all increased, as well.
It is true that the arrest rate for possession and use of drugs increased 162 percent from 1980 to 2006 (89 percent during the 1980s alone). We shouldn’t exaggerate, though. At their height in 1990, drug offenders were about 20 percent of state prisoners and are currently less than 15 percent.
Overall, the US incarceration rate is now at its lowest in 20 years.
Almost any public policy has its trade-offs, and in the fullness of time, with crime having fallen so dramatically, it is natural that the priorities — and overkill — of the 1990s will look different.
But no one should apologize for having worked to get dangerous people off the streets at a time when they were causing untold grief and rending the civic fabric of America.
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