The Misplaced Criticism of Clinton's Crime Bill

It wasn’t perfect, but critics forget that the legislation was a bipartisan effort addressing a genuine need.

Frank Franklin II / AP

At a particularly precarious moment during the congressional maneuvering over the 1994 crime bill, President Bill Clinton received a powerful endorsement from an influential group on the debate’s frontlines.

In July 1994, ten African American Democratic mayors—including those from Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Denver—urged Congress to approve the measure, even after House and Senate negotiators removed from the final bill a House-passed provision making it easier for prisoners on death row to challenge their sentences as racially discriminatory.

While they supported that idea, the black mayors wrote, they did not believe its demise should outweigh other elements in the bill that they valued—particularly new federal funding to hire more police and launch prevention program for at-risk young people. “We cannot afford to lose the opportunities this bill provides to the people of our cities," the mayors wrote.

That fragment of forgotten history illuminates two key points about the 1994 crime bill, which has reemerged as a flashpoint in the primary campaign between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, particularly after Bill Clinton’s heated encounter with protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement last week in Philadelphia.

One is that the legislation was a genuine compromise that advanced priorities of left and right—but also required concessions from each side (like liberals jettisoning the death penalty provision). The second is that the historical record doesn’t support the left’s now-common assertion that the crime bill was primarily a politically motivated concession by Clinton to white racial backlash. While Clinton undoubtedly considered the bill part of his effort to rebuild the Democrats’ national coalition after its collapse during the 1980s, he believed the best way to do that was to make genuine progress against a rising tide of violent crime.

“The renaissance of American cities is one of the great stories of the last quarter century and cities had their backs against the wall because of crime and violence in the early 1990s,” says Bruce Reed, Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser in the White House. “It was impossible to make economic progress without restoring order and leaders and police were crying for help.”

The 1994 crime bill was far from perfect. But today’s sharpest criticism of the legislation—encapsulated by the Philadelphia protester’s sign last week that read “Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities”—ignores the genuine need the bill addressed.

The bill followed years of elevated violence that had many cities reeling. According to FBI statistics, against the backdrop of expanding crack use, the violent-crime rate increased by over 25 percent just from 1980 through 1992. By the early 1990s, the murder rate in the nation’s largest cities peaked at over 30 per 100,000 residents; in New York City alone, 2,245 people were murdered in 1990. This violence most heavily afflicted African American, Hispanic, and low-income communities. So destabilizing were these waves that in late 1993 a task force of mayors (chaired by Wellington Webb, the black mayor of Denver) urged Clinton to mount an “all-out” federal effort against “the continuing epidemic of violent crime in our cities.”

The crime bill that eventually emerged from extended negotiations between and within the two parties in Washington attacked this problem from every angle. It blended priorities of Clinton and congressional Democrats—principally more money to hire 100,000 police officers, funding for enhanced prevention programs and a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons—with the top goal of congressional Republicans, big grants to states to build more prisons. Both sides contributed to a complex mix of sentencing changes that expanded federal mandatory-minimum sentences and required states (as a condition of obtaining the prison money) to toughen sentences for violent offenders, but also experimented with alternatives like boot camps and drug courts. Several leading African American legislators (including John Conyers and Maxine Waters) opposed the final bill, but many others (such as James Clyburn and Kweisi Mfume) supported it—as did leading Hispanic and white liberals (from Luis Gutierrez to Richard Durbin and then-Representative Bernie Sanders.)

Bill Clinton has correctly conceded that some of these changes were “overly broad” and accelerated a trend toward excessive incarceration that most criminal-justice experts say was primarily rooted in federal and state decisions during the previous two decades. But that’s only part of the crime bill’s legacy. The violent crime rate has plummeted by nearly 50 percent since 1994, back to its lowest level since 1970.  Across the 30 largest cities the murder rate has dropped by about two-thirds since 1990. While the crime bill was not the principal factor in those declines—which researchers have struggled to precisely explain—most studies agree the legislation contributed to the gains, particularly by enabling cities to hire more police officers and requiring them to move into street patrols.

Clinton wanted to act against crime partly to blunt its use as a wedge issue against Democrats. But he believed the best way “to address that was by taking seriously the problem of crime,” says Michael Waldman, Clinton’s former chief speechwriter and now president of the Brennan Center for Justice. On crime, Clinton believed his signature formulation of expanding opportunity while demanding personal responsibility offered the approach most likely to produce progress, not only politically but also substantively. The crime bill's impact was always constrained by the limits of Washington's impact on policing, a preponderantly local activity. And in some ways the bill unquestionably misfired. But on the whole it did more to advance, than impede, the ongoing revival of America’s largest cities.