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On The Anniversary Of Joe Biden's Crime Bill, Are We Heading Down The Same Harmful Path?

September 13 was the 28th anniversary of the 1994 Crime Bill. ESSENCE talks to criminal justice experts about its harmful legacy to the Black community and whether history is repeating itself.
On The Anniversary Of Joe Biden’s Crime Bill, Are We Heading Down The Same Harmful Path?
Photo by Dirck Halstead/Getty Images

Tuesday was the 28th anniversary of the signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, more commonly referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill. This controversial legislation contains many provisions in its 356 pages, and at the time was “the largest crime bill in the history of the United States.” Then-Senator Biden, who headed up the Senate Judiciary Committee, authored the “tough on crime” language, which was subsequently signed into law by President Clinton.  

More than a quarter century later, opponents of the law remain critical, with many arguing it fundamentally contributed to our country’s mass incarceration problem, as evidenced by the fact that the U.S. “incarcerates more of its people — disproportionately Black — than any other nation in the world.”  

While the law did establish an assault weapons ban and contained the momentous Violence Against Women, which greatly helped to reduce domestic violence incidents, the law comprised of language wherein, “[s]tates and localities were incentivized through a massive infusion of federal funding to build more jails and prisons and to pass so-called truth-in-sentencing laws and other punitive measures that simultaneously increased the number and length of prison sentences while reducing the possibility of early release for those incarcerated,” writes the Center for American Progress

The 1994 law was especially problematic, considering its interaction and reinforcement of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, “which created huge disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. Under this bill, a person was sentenced to a five-year minimum sentence for five grams of crack cocaine, but it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence.” Due to the fact that crack is more inexpensive than its powder form, it is more prevalent in lower-income communities, which “are more likely to be predominantly Black.”  

On The Anniversary Of Joe Biden’s Crime Bill, Are We Heading Down The Same Harmful Path?
US President Bill Clinton (L) hugs Senator Joseph Biden, D-Del., on September 13, 1994 during a signing ceremony for the crime bill on the South Lawn of the White House. – President Clinton said the crime bill would “roll back this awfull tide of violence” in the US. (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Per the Brookings Institution, “[m]any people, understandably, see the 1994 crime bill as the principal source of the problems discussed here, even if the truth is much more complicated than that.”  

Reflecting on the legacy of the 1994 crime bill, ESSENCE sat down with Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA) and Dr. Amara Enyia, the Manager of Policy & Research for the Movement for Black Lives, which is “an ecosystem of individuals and organizations creating a shared vision and policy agenda to win rights, recognition, and resources for Black people.” 

During his freshman year of Congress, Congressman Scott, the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on the Crime Subcommittee at the time, became a lead opponent of the 1994 crime bill. When asked about that time, Congressman Scott said, “everybody was for the crime bill, except the few that didn’t get the message like me. The ’94 crime bill was essentially a political document, comprised of all of the poll tested slogans and sound bites stapled together, and called the crime bill.” 

According to Dr. Enyia, “we’re still living with the impact of the ‘94 crime bill, when we talk about the role that mass incarceration has played in destabilizing families and entire communities and it has a generational impact. Everything from which the conditions to which people were labeled, especially Black people labeled as super predators, to the development of the three strikes rule, to a criminal legal system that was already unjust, being essentially propped up and given even more resources to continue these actions that have devastated the Black community.”  

During the conversation, Dr. Enyia was adamant about the fact “that we need to invest in the things that actually create strong individuals, strong families, strong communities, and that does not involve just putting money into policing and police infrastructure.” 

“We know what it looks like when entire generations of folks are separated from the families or don’t have the kind of stability in their community. We can’t support or advocate for measures that are inhumane or unconstitutional because it’s always going to harm Black folks even more so, who will always bear the brunt of it,” Dr. Enyia continued.  

With respect to current efforts around criminal justice reform, Congressman Scott remains hopeful for the future, stating “I think people have learned their lesson from the ‘94 crime bill. [President] Bill Clinton doesn’t even try to defend it anymore. It served a political purpose, but it didn’t have any concern for actually reducing crime, or the effect it had on minorities. We have come a long way since then—it used to be that when you talked about evidence-based crime policy, you’d be considered soft on crime. But I think there are enough people now actually support an intelligent evidence-based approach to crime policy, which is to a large degree, prevention and early intervention.”