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Bill Clinton and the 1994 Crime Bill

Bill Clinton overstated the effect of the crime bill he signed in 1994 when he said, “because of that bill we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate.” Independent analyses have found that the bill had a modest effect on crime rates.

Clinton offered his defense of the bill in response to a protester at a campaign event for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia on April 7. In addition to Clinton’s inflated assessment of the bill’s effect on crime, we found fault with how both sides portrayed the crime bill in Clinton’s back-and-forth with the protester:

  • The protester clearly yelled something about the “three-strikes” provision in the 1994 crime bill. Some in the Black Lives Matter movement have blamed that provision for mass incarceration. But that overstates the effect of the bill, as the steady trend toward increased incarceration long pre-dated the 1994 bill.
  • Clinton responded by saying “90 percent of the people in prison too long are in state prisons and local jails,” not federal prisons. But that claim — meant to deflect responsibility for mass incarceration — goes too far in the other direction. The bill did include $8.7 billion for prison construction for states that enacted “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which required people convicted of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The law at issue was the sweeping Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which provided funding for tens of thousands of community police officers and drug courts, banned certain assault weapons, and mandated life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes. The mandated life sentences were known as the “three-strikes” provision.

The law is blamed by some for rising incarceration rates, though as we will explain later, that trend actually began in the 1970s.  Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — who voted for the 1994 crime bill — has frequently noted on the campaign trail, correctly, that the U.S. has, by far, the largest prison population in the world (though we have noted that his promise to correct that dubious distinction in his first term would be an almost impossibly tall order).

In a speech at an NAACP convention in Philadelphia in July, Clinton acknowledged that tougher incarceration provisions in the bill were a mistake. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton said. “And I want to admit it.”

Although Hillary Clinton was not in the Senate at the time and did not vote on the bill, she spoke in favor of it at the time. Asked about the law during a Democratic debate on March 6, Hillary Clinton said that “there were some aspects that worked well” including violence against women provisions, but she allowed that other portions related to increasing incarceration “were a mistake.”

Hillary Clinton also has been criticized for using the term “super predator” in 1996 to describe kids with “no conscience, no empathy,” though it is a phrase she has since said she regrets using.

That was the context of the exchange between the protester and Bill Clinton on April 7.

The protester can be heard yelling something about “three strikes.” The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the woman also held a sign that read, “Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities!”

Here’s how the former president responded:

Bill Clinton, April 7:  What she’s referring to are the increased sentencing provisions of the 1994 crime bill. Ninety percent of the people in prison too long are in state prisons and local jails, more than 90 percent. But it’s also true that there are too many people in the state prisons, I mean the federal prisons. President Obama is trying to let them out. Here’s what happened. Let’s just tell the whole story. …

Here’s what happened. Vice President Biden, you guys know Vice President Biden, whose family comes from Scranton. He was the chairman of the committee that had jurisdiction over this crime bill. I had an assault weapons ban in it. I had money for inner-city kids for out-of-school activities. We had 110,000 police officers, so we could put people on the street, not in these military vehicles, and the police would look like the people they were policing. We did all of that.

And Biden said, ‘You can’t pass this bill, the Republicans will kill it if you don’t put more sentencing in.’ I talked to a lot of African American groups. They thought black lives mattered. They said, ‘Take this bill because our kids are being shot in the streets by gangs.’ We had 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals.

She doesn’t want to hear any of that. [Clinton said, pointing at the protester.] You know what else she doesn’t want to hear, because of that bill we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate. And listen to this, because of that and the background check law we had a 46-year low in the deaths of people by gun violence. And who do you think those lives were that mattered. Whose lives were saved that mattered?

We’ll start with Clinton’s inflated claim that “because of that bill we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate.”

Effect on the Crime Rate

Crime did drop in the years after the bill passed, as Clinton said, but he gives too much credit to the crime bill for that. Experts who have studied the impact of the law say forces independent of the law were mostly responsible for the crime drop.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2005 estimated that the 1994 crime bill resulted in 88,000 additional police officers between 1994 and 2001, and that the influx of new police officers resulted in “modest” drop in crime.

The GAO concluded that between 1993 and 2000 the Community Oriented Policing Services(COPS) funds “contributed to a 1.3 percent decline in the overall crime rate and a 2.5 percent decline in the violent crime rate from the 1993 levels.” Still, the GAO concluded, “Factors other than COPS funds accounted for the majority of the decline in crime during this period.”

What were those other factors? Increased employment, better policing methods, an aging of the population, growth in income and inflation, to name a few.

“He (Clinton) may be able to claim some credit, but the jury is very much still out on this,” John Worrall, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, told us via email. “Criminologists and economists are in no agreement as to the causes of the crime declines we’ve seen. Could be economic, demographic, a civilizing effect, possibly because of abortion or lead paint, tougher sentences, etc., etc. A dozen or more explanations have been offered and no one agrees.”

Worrall co-authored research published in the journal Criminology in 2007 that concluded, “COPS spending had little to no effect on crime.” But he cautioned, “Ours is one voice in a crowd. Some have found no effect. I am comfortable saying modest effect. It could not have hurt to strengthen the police presence.”

“Crime did go down through the 1990s, but nobody has shown that any of the 1994 or 1996 federal legislation was a significant cause,” Frank Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is an expert in crime trends, told us via email.

As for the effect of the law’s increased incarceration provisions, they had little effect on reducing crime according to reports we reviewed. A 2014 report on the growth of incarceration in the United States by the National Research Council concluded, “The increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime, but the magnitude is highly uncertain and the results of most studies suggest it was unlikely to have been large.”

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2015 found that, “Incarceration has been declining in effectiveness as a crime control tactic since before 1980. Since 2000, the effect of increasing incarceration on the crime rate has been essentially zero.”

Responsible for Mass Incarceration?

The protester’s complaint assumes, of course, that the 1994 crime bill was a major contributor to mass incarceration that hit the black community particularly hard. But experts say that puts too much blame on the 1994 bill.

The trend toward increased incarceration began in the early 1970s, and quadrupled in the ensuing four decades. A two-year study by the National Research Council concluded that the increase was historically unprecedented, that the U.S. far outpaced the incarceration rates elsewhere in the world, and that high incarceration rates have disproportionately affected Hispanic and black communities. The report cited policies enacted by officials at all levels that expanded the use of incarceration, largely in response to decades of rising crime.

“In the 1970s, the numbers of arrests and court caseloads increased, and prosecutors and judges became harsher in their charging and sentencing,” the report states. “In the 1980s, convicted defendants became more likely to serve prison time.”

Indeed, this trend continued with tough-on-crime policies through the 1990s as well, but to lay the blame for the incarceration trend entirely, or even mostly, at the feet of the 1994 crime bill ignores the historical trend.

“The trend of increased incarceration had already started two decades before 1994,” Jeremy Travis, the president of the John Jay College of Justice in New York, told the New York Times. Travis led federal research on crime during the Clinton administration and was an editor of the National Research Council report.

But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have any effect. Experts told us the law exacerbated the trend. And so Clinton’s defense that “90 percent of the people in prison too long are in state prisons and local jails,” rather than federal prisons, is a bit misleading. It suggests the law only affected federal prisons, and that’s not accurate.

The bill included a federal “three-strikes” provision which required mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole for those who commit federal violent felonies if they had two or more previous convictions for violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes. In his mea culpa in August, Clinton said that while most people are in prison under state law, “the federal law set a trend.”

The bill also had a more direct impact on state prison populations. It included $8.7 billion for prison construction to states that passed “truth-in-sentencing” laws requiring that people convicted of violent crimes serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The New York Times at the time noted that those convicted of violent crimes served “55 percent of their sentences,” citing Justice Department data.

According to the Department of Justice, 11 states adopted truth-in-sentencing laws in 1995, one year after passage of the crime bill. By 1998, 27 states and the District of Columbia met the eligibility criteria for the truth-in-sentencing grants. Another 13 states adopted truth-in-sentencing for “certain offenders to serve a specific percent of their sentence.”

So while it may go too far to blame the 1994 crime bill for mass incarceration, it did create incentives for states to build prisons and increase sentences, and thereby contributed to increased incarceration.