Former President Bill Clinton made a campaign stop at Ohio University on Oct. 4, where he attempted to appeal to young voters by emphasizing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s positions on issues relevant to college students, such as her plan for college tuition subsidies.
At one point during the event, Clinton was interrupted by Prince Shakur, a local activist. Shakur stated, “I will not vote for a candidate that has sent millions of my people to prison,” in reference to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, more colloquially known as the 1994 Crime Bill. Clinton responded by claiming the bill was responsible for reducing crime rates.
A situation similar to this happened earlier on the campaign trail, where Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted the former president’s event in Philadelphia in protest of the same 1994 Crime Bill. At this event, Clinton again defended the bill by claiming the country experienced the lowest crime rate in decades because of that legislation.
Both of these claims, that the 1994 Crime Bill contributed greatly to mass incarceration and that the provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill significantly lowered crime rates, must be scrutinized. As we’ll see, the picture is not as clear as the Clinton camp or the Black Lives Matter coalition make it out to be.
Stating the 1994 Crime Bill contributed greatly to high incarceration rates ignores a historical trend several decades in the making. If you look at incarceration rates before and after the passage of this legislation, you’ll notice that incarceration rates increased at roughly the same pace in the years before and after the 1994 Crime Bill.
Now, this is not to say mass incarceration is not an issue. The important point to take away from this is the legislation obviously did not reverse the trend, but it also did not exacerbate the issue.
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, it is true that crime rates had fallen. However, to say the 1994 Crime Bill was the primary factor in this result is overstated.
The report states the bill “contributed to a 1.3 percent decline in the overall crime rate and a 2.5 percent decline in the violent crime rate from the 1993 levels,” in reference to crime rates from 1993 to 2000. John L. Worrall of The University of Texas at Dallas and Tomislav V. Kovandzic of the Department of Justice Statistics and University of Alabama at Birmingham reached a similar conclusion. Their study concluded that spending from the 1994 Crime Bill “did little, if anything, to reduce crime,” in the 189 cities used as the sample.
This leads to an interesting question: If falling crime rates cannot be primarily attributed to the 1994 Crime Bill, what caused them to fall? There are several theories present, each of which deserve some credence.
Some authors point to access to abortion, the theory being that less children being born into unfavorable circumstances leads to less adults that commit crime. Others have pointed to America’s aging population, as it has been noted crime tends to be committed by younger people. Meanwhile, others have theorized the decrease in the power of the crack cocaine market led to a decrease of other forms of crime. While these theorists may not agree with one another, it does show us the complexity of explaining crime rate trends.
This is just one case in where we tend to oversimplify political issues about which we are passionate. Without a doubt, mass incarceration is an issue, particularly in minority populations. Explaining crime rate trends in vital in our efforts to create safer communities. However, to lay the blame on a single factor for any problem ignores the necessary complexity many of these issues demand.