Debunking the Stupid, Yet Passionately Held, Myths About the 1994 Crime Bill

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 now stands as a symbol of the tragic erosion of truth which can be caused by decades of leftist indoctrination and media spin. 

As the name suggests, the purpose of the bill was to enable the police to control violent crime.  But that’s not how modern leftists remember the bill’s purpose or results.  Sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, for example, recently attacked Joe Biden, referring to him as “the same dude who was a senator in the '90s pushing the crime bill.”  “You know that crime bill,” he continues, “that led to mass incarceration for an inordinate amount of black folks … who was more of a culprit in that regard than Biden?”

It’s easy to cheer when the left eats their own like this, but this shouldn’t be one of those moments. 

First of all, Biden was hardly a radical for supporting it.  The 1994 law also enjoyed the bipartisan support of 94 other members of the Senate, including Democrats Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, Tom Daschle, and none other than the “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy.

These were once the standard-bearers of progressivism.  Now, they are all but forgotten by indoctrinated young progressive activists, framed as the villains responsible for upholding a system of white supremacy by passing a racist law. 

That narrative is unfortunately strengthened by Republicans on the other side of the aisle, who are courting potential defectors by promoting the lie that it was a terrible, racist law.  In 2019, Donald Trump, sensing Biden’s weakness on the issue, attacked Biden, saying that “African Americans will not be able to vote for” Biden because of his association with the bill, and claims that his own “Criminal Justice Reform” helped “fix the bad 1994 Bill!” [sic]

But the truth matters, and the claim that the ‘94 crime bill created the issue of mass incarceration in America, of black people or otherwise, is utter nonsense.    

“Mass incarceration is relative,” says Doug Stanglin in USA Today.  “From 1980-94, the nation’s prison population more than doubled on a per capita basis.”  In reality, prisons had been growing since the 1960s, but astonishingly, it took only six years after the ‘94 bill was passed for the growth of prison populations to begin slowing.  In 2000, prison population rose “at the lowest rate since 1972 and had the smallest actual increase since 1980.” 

This, as it happens, was an intended outcome of the ’94 crime bill.  A justice system that imprisons criminals is one that disincentivizes crime.  When crimes are punished, fewer people commit crimes.

And this is a point which is both unmistakable and irrefutable – violent crime rates plummeted after the ‘94 crime bill.  In 1993, there were roughly 747 violent crimes reported per 100K of the population.  By 2000, that rate had decreased 507, and by 2014, it was 363.  A similar trend is observed with homicides, with a rate of 9.4 homicides per 100K of the population in 1990, 5.9 in 2000, and 5.1 in 2014.

The point is, the ‘94 crime bill accomplished something that is incredibly rare in sea of failed government policies – it actually worked.

The American people were given a choice in 1994.  Shall more criminals be in prison, or shall they be on the streets committing crimes?  They chose the former, and why that choice led to a reduction in violent crime shouldn’t baffle anyone.

Even still, leftist journalists and academics have feigned bewilderment for decades as to how violent crime could fallen in the ensuing decades while prisons were filling.  “Scholars have been puzzling over this pattern,” says Peter K. Enns at the Washington Post.

What confuses them, we can suppose, is how the change in incarceration rate can be falling while the prison populations continue to rise.  The problem, Enns contends, is that American prison sentences are too long.  “Thus, even if the crime rate goes down, and the number of new incarcerations go down,” he says, “the total prison population can increase” because many of those who were previously incarcerated “are still behind bars.”

What we are witnessing here is a direct shift in priorities from those focused upon by voters and legislators in 1994.  As the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by “persistent violent offenders,” longer sentences for repeat offenders were a feature of anti-violent crime legislation in the '90s, not a bug.  The “three-strikes law” explicitly mandated life sentences for violent crime offenders who previously had one or two “serious convictions.” 

In short, the purpose of the 1994 bill was to disincentive crime and prevent violent criminals from committing crimes by way of permanently separating them from society.  By 2016, when Enns was arguing his case and only after violent crime rates had fallen substantially, the priority had shifted to be about how the incarceration rate could be lowered. 

To be clear, the 1994 legislation wasn’t a squarely-struck home run.  There were problems with it, including the famous “assault weapons ban,” which ended in 2004.  As I’ve written before, there is no evidence whatsoever that this ban had any practical effect in lowering the homicide rate, because while the murder rate did begin falling dramatically in 1994, it continued falling for 10 years after the sunset of the ban.

Homicide rates fell until, as Heather MacDonald famously calls it, the “Ferguson Effect” took hold after the media circus and riots that followed Michael Brown’s death in 2015.  As cops began facing more public scrutiny and attacks, sometimes for just defending themselves against violent black criminals, proactive policing in black communities naturally receded.  As a result, violent crime and homicide rates both began rising in 2015 after hitting all-time lows in 2014 that still haven’t returned.

But while this result of fewer officers policing black communities and arresting black people may be good news to white liberals in gated communities, it is less so to those living in black communities.  Even as Democrats proudly called to “defund the police” during the fiery, deadly Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, 81% of black Americans wanted either the same or greater police presence in their neighborhoods. 

And it wasn’t very different in 1994.  Contrary to the preferred narrative these days, black Americans also broadly supported the 1994 crime bill at the time.  Michael Fortner, author of Black Silent Majority (2015), argues that black Americans “needed some type of mechanism to create safe streets for people who were not committing crimes” because “life in the inner city was just untenable,” and people “were unable to lead normal lives.”

But progressives today, removed from the reality of that moment, think this was some huge mistake that allowed white racist Democrats and Republicans in 1994 to disproportionately imprison black people.  Unsurprisingly, this slanderously assigns a motive to those voters and legislators that is wildly untrue.  But what’s more, the contention that the law led to “an inordinate amount of black folks” in prison, as Stephen A. Smith argues, is absolutely, and provably, false.

Racial disparities in imprisonment rates between blacks and whites had existed for decades before 1994, but these disparities didn’t begin to polarize after 1994.  In 1993, there were 1,471 black inmates for every 100,000 black Americans, while there were 207 white inmates for every 100,000 white Americans.  This is a stark 7-to-1 discrepancy in the rate, but between 1995 and 2011, for example, there was a continued increase to prison populations while the racial composition remained largely the same.  In 2011, there were 478 white males in prison per 100,000 white Americans versus 3,023 black males in prison per 100,000 black Americans, which is a roughly 6.5-to-1 discrepancy.

A report on “Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment Across States and Over Time,” published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2018, concludes unequivocally that, “whatever its other effects,” the “1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment.” The large increase in black imprisonment, the report concludes, is actually traceable to the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s.

In short, the 1994 crime bill is responsible for approximately none of the evils that leftists, ignorant young people, and some awkwardly pandering Republicans attribute to it, while having achieved some actual successes that are conveniently omitted in the narrative. 

This is important, because America’s cities are quickly becoming crime-ridden cesspools because they have discarded the wisdom of the 1994 crime bill in favor of woke prescriptions intended to reduce the number of black people in prison rather than reducing the number of criminals on the streets.  If we are going to actually make this country great again, it certainly will not be accomplished by making our prisons sparser and more racially diverse.  It will be accomplished by our commitment to enforce the law, to separate violent criminals from society, and to address the root causes of why so many black Americans tragically turn to a life of violence and crime -- namely, fatherlessness, being trapped in failed public schools, and reliance upon a welfare state which promotes government dependency, all of which perpetuate generational cycles of crime and poverty that uniquely afflicts black Americans.

Democrats, being the party which visited all of that upon black Americans since the 1960s, understandably don’t want to talk about it, and would rather blame a successful anti-crime bill from the '90s.  It’s a tremendous mistake for Republicans to double down on those Democrat lies in a misguided effort to pick off disaffected black voters rather than to simply speak the truth.

Image: The U.S. National Archives, via Picryl // no known copyright restrictions

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