1994 crime bill is a victim of revisionist history

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton get set for the national anthem at the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday in New York. When asked, both said they thought the 1994 crime bill was good for the country at the time.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton get set for the national anthem at the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday in New York. When asked, both said they thought the 1994 crime bill was good for the country at the time. The Associated Press

Things have changed a lot since 1994. Murder is no longer an epidemic. Marijuana is legal in a small but growing number of states, and the drug most likely to ensnare Americans with addiction isn’t crack from a street dealer, but painkillers from a doctor.

These are things that then-President Bill Clinton could’ve never imagined when, in his State of the Union address that January, deep in the middle of a violent war on drugs, he chose to talk about the murder of a little girl from Petaluma.

Polly Klaas was her name. She was 12 when she was kidnapped from her bedroom at knifepoint and strangled. A horrific crime.

The man who did it was a felon out on parole – a fact that incensed people across California and the rest of the country, all the way to the White House.

“Those who commit crimes should be punished,” Clinton said, “and those who commit repeated violent crimes should be told when you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away and put away for good. Three strikes and you are out.”

Those words echo now that it’s 2016 and his wife, Hillary Clinton, is running for president of an America where increasingly, voters and policymakers reject some of the tough-on-crime policies the Clintons once embraced.

There’s hindsight, and then there’s history, and in recent weeks, there has been a conflation of the two. While great for scoring cheap political points, revisionist history ultimately does a disservice to the far more important goal everyone should share: Creating a criminal justice system that works equally for all Americans.

For too many years, the United States hasn’t had that.

Those “three strikes” Clinton talked about were well on their way to becoming law in California in 1994, when the Legislature and voters were galvanized by the murder of Polly Klaas. Proposition 184 passed overwhelmingly.

“The majority of both houses of the Legislature and the overwhelming majority of the public are in a mind to put people away forever for jaywalking, period,” said then-Speaker Willie Brown, one of only nine Assembly members to vote against the measure. “That is the mentality that is going to prevail.”

A lighter version of “three strikes” also became the centerpiece of Clinton’s federal crime bill. It was that 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that pushed the nation over the edge, one of a string of tough-on-crime measures that bloated the prison system and disproportionately decimated poor communities of color.

It’s what people, particularly young people who grew up in the lock-’em-up era, remember most. This is definitely true in New York, where voters head to the polls Tuesday to pick a nominee for president, and in California, where voters will have their say in June.

Both states bought into the tough-on-crime philosophy in a big way in the 1970s, 1980s and pivotal 1990s. And in both states, too many families were destroyed by heavy-handed, misguided efforts to stop the violence by locking up millions of young black men on nonviolent drug offenses.

It’s not all that surprising then that the two-decade-old bill has become a major issue in a presidential campaign dominated by new voters. Or that Black Lives Matter protesters, emboldened by the recent wave of criminal justice reform, would corner Bill Clinton at a rally for his wife and demand he apologize for the bill being racist and a “crime against humanity.”

But the 1994 crime bill wasn’t an inherently racist piece of legislation ginned up by the Clintons and foisted upon the public over unilateral objections from the black community. Rather, the bill was a well-intentioned, if expedient, response to a very real crisis.

It’s easy to forget in 2016, when Americans can look back on roughly two decades of falling crime rates despite a recent uptick in homicides. But in the 1980s and 1990s, things were bad.

How bad? To put things in perspective, before national crime rates began to drop in the early 1990s (yes, before the crime bill passed), the homicide rate among black men 18 to 24 years old was nearly 200 per 100,000, or about 20 times the rate for the U.S. population as a whole.

In California, the number of murders hit a high of 4,095 in 1993. Los Angeles recorded 2,589 homicides in a single year. New York City had 2,245 at its peak in 1990.

Compare that to 2014, when L.A. had 254 murders and New York had 328, making it one of the safest large cities in the world. Statewide, California’s violent crime rate hit a 47-year low that year.

Well-meaning people – black and white – were desperate. Desperation rarely leads to good decisions.

At the federal level, that meant passing mandatory sentencing laws, beginning in the 1980s under the Reagan administration. The strategy continued into the 1990s, with politicians hesitating to look soft on crime for fear of losing elections.

The 1994 crime bill banned assault-style weapons and cracked down on violence against women, as Hillary Clinton and her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders, defensively pointed out during Thursday’s night debate in New York.

But the bill mainly put more police on the streets, many of them in poor, drug-war-torn neighborhoods. Federal sentencing laws that required harsher punishment for crack cocaine offenses than powdered cocaine made things worse.

In California, getting tough on crime meant ramping up mandatory sentencing laws, including the “determinate” sentencing measure that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law during in his first term in 1976. He’s now working to undo that, hoping to qualify for the fall ballot an initiative that would make it easier for nonviolent offenders to get parole.

The pendulum has been swinging to the middle for some time now. First, in the form of Brown’s measure to realign the criminal justice system and cut prison population by reducing sentences for several crimes, and then by initiatives in 2012 and 2014 that softened the three-strikes law and reduced sentences for several other crimes.

We now know better, or think we do. The war on drugs shouldn’t be fought with guns and handcuffs. Locking up people for minor crimes and throwing away the key doesn’t work. And sometimes people need third, fourth and even fifth chances.

Yes, it took too long for America to learn all of this and begin to unravel unduly harsh policies that exacted far too high of a price on communities of color. But we learned. Now it’s time to focus on the complicated work of fixing the criminal justice system, and drop the revisionist history.