Criticism of the Clinton crime bill is misplaced

Bill Clinton has faced some serious blowback for his decision to defend the 1994 crime bill he (and Hillary) supported. The crime bill is blamed by many on the left, including Black Lives Matter supporters, for mass incarceration which disproportionately impacted black Americans.

Ronald Brownstein, writing for the Atlantic, says the critics of the bill have forgotten what things were like shortly before it was passed. Crime was hitting a peak in the early 90s and the crime bill was a bipartisan attempt to address the problem, one supported by many elected black leaders at the time:

At a particularly precarious moment during the congressional maneuvering over the 1994 crime bill, President Bill Clinton received a powerful endorsement from an influential group on the debate’s frontlines.

In July 1994, ten African American Democratic mayors—including those from Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Denver—urged Congress to approve the measure, even after House and Senate negotiators removed from the final bill a House-passed provision making it easier for prisoners on death row to challenge their sentences as racially discriminatory.

Brownstein argues the real history of the bill is at odds with the claim made by the left about it now:

The historical record doesn’t support the left’s now-common assertion that the crime bill was primarily a politically motivated concession by Clinton to white racial backlash. While Clinton undoubtedly considered the bill part of his effort to rebuild the Democrats’ national coalition after its collapse during the 1980s, he believed the best way to do that was to make genuine progress against a rising tide of violent crime.


The bill followed years of elevated violence that had many cities reeling. According to FBI statistics, against the backdrop of expanding crack use, the violent-crime rate increased by over 25 percent just from 1980 through 1992. By the early 1990s, the murder rate in the nation’s largest cities peaked at over 30 per 100,000 residents; in New York City alone, 2,245 people were murdered in 1990. This violence most heavily afflicted African American, Hispanic, and low-income communities. So destabilizing were these waves that in late 1993 a task force of mayors (chaired by Wellington Webb, the black mayor of Denver) urged Clinton to mount an “all-out” federal effort against “the continuing epidemic of violent crime in our cities.”

It’s one thing to argue that the bill had some negative consequences but it’s not fair to argue the bill was an attempt to destroy black communities. On the contrary, it was arguably an effort to stop the mayhem that was impacting black communities the hardest. Indeed, that’s the argument Bill Clinton made when challenged by protesters last week. “I talked to a lot of African-American groups. They thought black lives matter,” Clinton said. “They said take this bill because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs.,” Clinton added.

“Because of that bill we had a 25-year-low in crime, a 33-year-low in the murder rate and listen to this…because of that and the background check law we had a 46-year-low in the deaths of people by gun violence. And who do you think those lives were that mattered? Whose lives were saved that mattered?”

Brownstein argues the crime bill was “not the principal factor” in those declines but agrees it played a role. It’s possible to argue that the bill went too far, that it created perverse incentives for incarceration and gave sentences that were excessive for minor drug crimes. It’s also true that, circa 1994 when violent crimes was nearing record highs, putting more cops on the street and more people in prison was a reasonable course of action to take.

US violent crime rate

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