A Safe Distance on Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill

When crime was rampant.

Photographer: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Clinton got an earful last week from Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia, and the former president responded in kind -- and at length.

The dispute was over the 1994 crime bill, the most comprehensive criminal justice legislation in U.S. history. “Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities,” a protester’s sign read. Clinton argued that the bill had saved black communities, and black lives. He later expressed regret for his outburst. He shouldn’t have.

The legislation paid for close to 100,000 additional community police officers, built new prisons, encouraged harsher sentences for crimes, and specifically toughened penalties for rape and domestic violence. Crime came down. Lives were saved. The alternate history, the one without the bill, would likely be filled with the stories of victims, many of them black.

The bill came with its human cost. The trend toward more and longer sentences -- an ongoing increase that was actually greater before the bill passed -- surely harmed some lives that otherwise could have been redeemed. This cannot be discounted. And yet to focus on this observation at the exclusion of all else would be a serious mistake. In fact, the current and vocal critique of the bill is one that can be reached only in hindsight. It is a luxury afforded by the drastic decline in violent crime over the past 22 years. In the early 1990s, crime was rampant. Almost 11 million violent crimes were committed in 1994, including 23,305 homicides. That’s nearly double the number of murders in 2014.

“If you weren’t seriously worried about crime in 1994, you just weren’t paying attention,” wrote criminal justice expert Mark A.R. Kleiman in February, after the crime bill emerged as an issue in the Democratic presidential primary. “No one knew then that we’d seen the worst. All we knew is that the number of murders had more than doubled, that the total number of violent crimes had increased sixfold in the previous 30 years, that no reversal of trend seemed to be in sight, and that the street-level arms race financed by the crack trade had expanded the age range of killers and their victims down into adolescence.”

Crime is an enormously complex phenomenon, one that may ultimately be more responsive to subtle social inputs than to blunt punitive measures. Quantifying the 1994 law’s effects, tying it to the precipitous drop in crime over the subsequent two decades, will always be tricky. 

The law is best understood as a democratic response to a crisis. Like all such responses, it was imperfect, dependent on political compromise and assumptions about the future. But it’s doubtful this current debate would even be happening without a steep drop in crime. It’s worth remembering that a safer society, more than any flaw particular to the law, has opened the political space to debate needed sentencing reforms -- and even to heckle a former president.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.