Did the 1994 Crime Bill Help or Hurt?

Mass IncarcerationBy Inimai M. Chettiar, Lauren-Brooke Eisen

The 22-year-old crime law issue is back in the news after the 1994 crime bill came up at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally last week.

Since then, much has been said about the legislation’s effect on crime and mass incarceration. Some argue the measure, officially called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, led to a drop in crime. Others vehemently contend it did not. Questions abound about its impact on mass incarceration.

With millions watching Thursday, the candidates can help put the bill in context — and offer their specific ideas to move criminal justice policy forward.

Like most political compromises, the crime bill did some good and some bad. It contributed to both the crime decline and mass incarceration. But not in the way that people might think.

First, the good: Though the crime bill was not responsible for the entire drop in crime, it likely helped — not by locking people up, but by putting more cops on the street, studies show. It provided funding for 100,000 new police officers and $14 billion in grants for community-oriented policing, for example. From 1990 to 1999, the number of police officers rose 28 percent, from 699,000 to 899,000, partly funded by the crime bill.

Research also indicates smarter policing tactics, like the ones funded by the bill, and social and economic factors — like an aging population and decreased alcohol consumption — played a role in the crime decline as well.

Crime had already started declining before the bill passed. From 1991 to 1994, crime dropped 10 percent and violence decreased by 5 percent. From 1994 to 2000, crime fell an additional 23 percent, with violent crime dropping by almost 30 percent. All of the above contributed to the fall.

Then there’s the bad: Although incarceration was already rising steadily before the crime bill, several of its provisions helped increase incarceration even further. Nevertheless, this increase had little impact on America’s subsequent drop in crime.

From 1970 to 1994, the rate of imprisonment exploded 400 percent, to 387 per 100,000 people. From 1994 to 2009, imprisonment continued to rise, doubling.

The crime bill contributed to this increase in incarceration. First, it banned 19 types of semiautomatic assault weapons, authorized the death penalty for dozens of existing and new federal crimes, and instituted a federal “three strikes and you’re out” provision.

But those facets were far less pernicious than how the crime bill influenced states to increase their prison rolls. The bill granted states $12.5 billion to build prisons if they passed “truth-in-sentencing” (TIS) laws, which required inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

A 2002 Urban Institute study found that between 1995 and 1999, nine states adopted TIS laws for the first time, and another 21 states changed their TIS laws to comply with the crime bill’s requirements and then apply for funding. By 1999, a total of 42 states had such laws on the books, sustaining an increase in imprisonment.

The crime bill, however, was just the most high-profile legislation to increase the number of people behind bars. On their own, states passed three-strikes laws, enacted mandatory minimums, eliminated parole, and removed judicial discretion in sentencing. By dangling bonus dollars, the crime bill encouraged states to remain on their tough-on-crime course.

What’s worse, research shows the dramatic increase in incarceration in the 1990s and 2000s played a limited role in bringing down crime. A classic case of “diminishing returns,” incarceration’s effect on reducing crime had been declining since before 1980. Since 2000, the effect of incarceration on crime has been even more limited. When prisons are used sparingly, incarceration is reserved for the highest-risk and most-serious offenders. When prison populations grow to be too large, it is usually by incarcerating less serious offenders. In other words, the more people we put in prison, the less likely each additional inmate has on reducing crime.

With crime and punishment again in the national debate, hopefully Thursday night Sanders and Clinton will outline specific plans for reining in our system of mass incarceration, which imprisons more than 2.2 million Americans. Ted Cruz and John Kasich have also endorsed criminal justice reform in some way on the campaign trail, with even Donald Trump acknowledging possible areas for change.

There is a solution they can champion. Just like in the 1990s, the federal government can encourage states to continue their current trajectory. Between 2008 and 2013, 32 states reduced both imprisonment and crime. A federal “Reverse Crime Bill” can encourage states to go further.

A modern crime bill can shift the flow of federal dollars by providing grants to states that reduce rates of both crime and imprisonment. Clinton, in an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, recently acknowledged a role for Washington to set financial incentives for states to reduce imprisonment. She should expand on those points in Brooklyn Thursday.

As we debate these issues, it’s important to remember the facts: Crime is at its lowest levels today. And mass incarceration is near its highest. The crime bill likely played a role in the crime decline, but it also certainly increased the number of Americans behind bars.

The next president can and should back legislation to reverse the bad while preserving the good.

Originally published by the Brennan Center – republished by permission.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Napoleon Pig IV

    Follow the money. I doubt this issue is at the top of any presidential candidate’s agenda, and certainly not of interest to many, if any, state houses. Between the profitability of imprisonment and the profitability of policing via civil forfeiture, the government criminal enterprise is doing just fine, thank you.

  2. The Pugilist

    The problem with this piece is that the crime bill did not start or end the discussion.  Tougher crime measures were put on the books starting with the drug hysteria in the 1980s, it’s why crack had punishments of 10 times that of powder cocaine.  The public in 1994 was demanding tougher crime laws despite the 15 years decrease in the crime rate at that point.

  3. Frankly

    Though the crime bill was not responsible for the entire drop in crime, it likely helped — not by locking people up, but by putting more cops on the street

    What BS.  Where is the data to back up that fantastic politically-convenient point.

    Lock up the criminals and they can’t do crime.

    The drop in crime absolutely was caused by tougher law enforcement and tougher penalties for crime.

    It is so damn maddening that the 1994 crime bill was pushed by the black community for Democrat politicians to “do something”, and now the black community and Democrats are back claiming that this has led to too many being imprisoned… and somehow this is Republican’s fault.

    What it really is… more proof that the Democrats ping-pong back and forth grasping politically advantageous opportunity instead of doing what is right for the country.


  4. The Pugilist

    “Lock up the criminals and they can’t do crime.”

    Even on the surface of that, your statement is false – crime is committed in prisons – crime against inmates, crime against cops, and even more remarkably, most of the street gangs are controlled from inside maximum security prisons.

    Second, you’re not considering the recidivism rate – the fact that locking criminals in jail and releasing them creates a revolving door.

    Third, you’re not considering the costs and opportunity costs.  So yeah, you can spend $50K a year to lock someone for a minor crime for a long time, but that creates opportunity costs – people you can’t hire, etc.  A little discussed topic is the rate of unsolved crimes.

    1. The Pugilist

      Prosecutors in L.A. charge Castellanos

      In August, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles named Castellanos in an indictment alleging a host of narcotics, firearms and fraud offenses, all carried out from his cell at Pelican Bay.



      How Gangs Took Over Prisons – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/how-gangs-took-over-prisons/379330/

    2. zaqzaq

      The individuals being sent to prison are not the ones that are employable.  Getting a prison sentence indicates that this is not your first time at the rodeo.  It is usually part of an escalated response starting with diversion, misdemeanor convictions, felony probation and then after amassing a lengthy criminal history a prison sentence.  By the time they are looking at prison they are already not employable.
      Concerning the recidivism rate not locking them up means that they only get a slap on the wrist and are out committing more crime with out the prison time out. The key is getting to them at the first arrest before they amass a lengthy criminal record making them eligible for a prison commitment. By the time they get the prison sentence it is likely to late to have any meaningful impact on changing behavior.

  5. Tia Will


    While I believe that you are on the right track. However, intervening at the time of first arrest is still, at best, secondary prevention. What I believe is needed is primary prevention. Namely the creation of an environment in which children have the opportunity to see beyond the hopelessness and despair of their own neighborhoods. All should have the same state of opportunity that exists for those who live in economic and social circumstances where getting an education and full employment is the anticipated norm, not the experience of some truly exceptional individual who manages to overcome the harshness of his/her environment.

  6. sisterhood

    “The individuals being sent to prison are not the ones that are employable.  Getting a prison sentence indicates that this is not your first time at the rodeo.”

    Unless you are of color, low income or innocent. Ajay Dev and two other people I know come to mind. Oh, and the West Memphis 3. You may want to review the many wrongful convictions the Innocence Project is fighting to overturn.

  7. sisterhood

    “The key is getting to them at the first arrest before they amass a lengthy criminal record making them eligible for a prison commitment”

    Perhaps the key is making corporal punishment illegal at home and in school. There are still many states (not CA) that allow corporal punishment in school, and still allow parents to hit their children. People learn violence, and a distrust of all authority figures, at a young age. They also learn to lie to keep from getting punished. Violence begets more violence.

    Anyone see last week’s 60 Minutes episode re: the German prison system? Wonderful.

  8. tribeUSA

    Re: “Crime is at its lowest levels today. And mass incarceration is near its highest.”

    Reversing the order of these two sentences: “Mass incarceration is near its highest levels today. And crime is near its lowest” –to some extent one might infer a cause:effect relationship where the first sentence is the cause and the 2nd sentence the effect. In other words, one likely cause of the low crime rates of today is that more criminals are locked up. I personally don’t think this is the whole story, but it seems to be likely part of the story.

    That said, I do agree that alternatives to state prison should be sought for low-level nonviolent drug offenses. And that prisons should be reformed so that (1) there is less opportunity for prisoner-on-prisoner violence and abuse; and (2) gang alliances in prison are nipped in the bud or broken up and otherwise disempowered, so that gangs don’t dominate prisons so much. It seems to me that both factors (1) and (2) would tend to brutalize and harden many prisoners; so that they are worse human beings upon release than they were when they entered prison. Such conditions permissive of abuse in prison should not be tolerated.



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