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The Presidential Election 2016 and the 1994 Crime Bill

By April 19, 2016August 24th, 2018No Comments


The 2016 Presidential primaries have certainly made more voters pay attention to what is at stake in the Presidential election of 2016.  The cutting edge issues are quite variegated but on the campaign trail, mass incarceration and the criminal justice system have certainly generated a lot of heat.  Who is to blame for America’s pivot to mass incarceration?  Black Lives Matter has been quite strident in taking their message to candidates and their surrogates and demanding fundamental changes in the criminal justice system.

Political activists have pinpointed the omnibus and ominous 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act as the trigger for mass incarceration.  The Bill of over 300 plus pages reflected the concern of the Clinton administration, the United States Congress and what was perceived at the time as violent crime spinning out of control and endangering the delicate nature of the social order.

In omnibus bills, much is thrown into the hopper.  There are some aspects of the bill that are trail-blazing and other aspects that are draconian.  The 1994 Crime Bill included for the first time in America’s history, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  Funds were made available to provide safe havens for battered women.  The Violence Against Women Act sensitized the nation and made resources available on the state level to protect women against domestic violence.  The Act has been renewed every five years and has received bi-partisan support.

The 1994 Crime Act successfully banned semi-automatic assault rifles and limited magazines to ten bullets per clip.  This was a major achievement given the legislative clout of the National Rifle Association. That clout re-emerged when the sunset clause of that aspect of the Bill was not renewed in 2004 during the years of the George W. Bush administration.

The 1994 Crime Bill also made available funds to hire 100,000 police officers on the state or local level as community service officers.  The COPS office was established to assist police departments in training and in applying community policing.

The more draconian aspects of the Bill was evident vis-a-vis the federal government expansion of the death penalty in matters of high-jacking, the assassination of a federal law enforcement officer, for crimes of terrorism, etc.  The law allowed the federal government to expand its law enforcement portfolio.

Billions of dollars were made available to states for building new prisons.  In order to qualify for these funds, states had to adopt mandatory/minimum sentences which invariably led to the further balloon of the prison population.

What is ironical is that the President and Congress’ intervention was late as by the mid 1990s, the violent crime rate began a steep decline that lasted right into the twenty-first century.  As the prison population grew in places like California and Georgia, violent crime was declining.

Basically, from the 1920s until the 1970s, the United States prison population hovered around 200,000.  Thereafter, the age of mass incarceration kicks in. Decade after decade, the increases in the prison population continue seemingly ad infinitum.

By 1985, there were 800,000 incarcerated and the milestone of over 1 million prisoners was achieved by 1990.  In 2013, the United States prison population had peaked at 1,600,000.  When we include those who are on parole and probation, one gets the massive figure of over 7 million under the supervision of the correctional system. America has the distinction of constituting 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of those incarcerated.  The U.S. rate is 716 per 100,000.  A country like Sweden has 67 prisoners per 100,000. The mass incarceration proclivity began long before the 1994 Crime Bill which served as a booster rocket for mass incarceration.

What occurred in America between the 1970s and 1990s that precipitated the violent crime wave?  Sociologists like William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson will argue that the de-industrialization that affected the inner city in the 1970s created an army of lumpen-proletariat whose survival forced them to forge an underground illegitimate economy that contributed to social disorganization of neighborhoods and the spiral of violence.  Gangs were no longer social networks but business organizations involved in the dangerous business of drug markets.

The crack epidemic added fuel to the fire.  The crack epidemic peaked by 1990 and according to some urban anthropologists in the case of New York City was replaced by the marijuana smoking generation with an aversion for hard drugs.

So what caused the decline beginning in the 1990s?  Did mass incarceration result in such incapacitation that it served as a deterrent?  What is clear is that the prediction of hordes of super-predators forecast by reputable criminologists like the late James

Q. Wilson simply did not come to pass.  In fact, the percentage of the population in the prime crime years from 15-29 declined.

There is something of an ideological convergence of the right and the left that the cost of mass incarceration has become prohibitive both on the federal and the state level.  It is in all the parties’ interest to find ways to reduce sizably the prison population.

The Republican front-runners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have tried to use scare tactics on the issue of crime to stir up their conservative base.  Trump with his demagoguery on Mexican immigrants and Cruz in his New York commercials erroneously stating that murders had gone up in New York City by 10 percent.  Using the benchmark of 1990, murders in New York City have declined by 84.4 percent.  For 2016, COMPSTAT data have revealed that as of April, 2016, murders in 2016 have declined by 19.8 percent.  At this juncture in 2015, there were 91 recorded homicides.  Thus far in 2016, there have been 71 homicides.  In a diverse city of immigrants with more than our fair share of undocumented immigrants, in New York City crime is not only down but the prison population has been reduced that the state has closed over 10 prisons and there are less people in parole and probation.  What has occurred in New York City is simply phenomenal and requires further study.  New York City has shown that crime can be reduced without resorting to mass incarceration.

Dr. Basil Wilson