In a commentary published by The Marshall Project, The Sentencing Project’s Executive Director Marc Mauer discusses the 1994 federal crime bill and provides context for recent debate about its history and impact. In Philadelphia, the issue became a point of contention between Bill Clinton and Black Lives Matters activists; the former president defended the bill, which he signed into law.
As someone who testified on the legislation in Congress that year, I can recall the heated crime politics of the day. But I’ve also followed the impact of the bill over time, and what strikes me is that both Clinton and protesters do not fully understand the history.
Mauer notes that while President Clinton has claimed that the crime bill was a success, as demonstrated by the substantial decline in crime and violence since its passage, the data don’t support this story.
But crime rates were already going down before the bill’s passage, in large part due to the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic and its associated violence in the late 1980s. Further, a comprehensive assessment of mass incarceration by the National Research Council in 2014 concluded that incarceration had some impact on crime, but its magnitude “was unlikely to have been large.”
But while Bill Clinton’s story is off base, so too are suggestions that the 1994 bill was the key driver of mass incarceration. In fact, prison populations began to rise in 1973, and reached double-digit annual percentage increases in the 1980s. This was a national phenomenon, largely taking place at the state level, where more than 85% of prisoners are housed. During these years virtually every state adopted some form of mandatory sentencing and harsher penalties for juvenile offenders, while also ramping up arrests for drug offenses.
Although the crime bill did not inaugurate mass incarceration, it certainly escalated the scale of its impact. The legislation expanded the death penalty, enacted mandatory minimum sentences, and used financial incentives to encourage states to adopt harsh punishments with financial incentives. In total, the bill included $9 billion for prison construction and $8 billion for 100,000 police officers.
Read the full commentary at The Marshall Project.