This Thursday evening, presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump took the debate stage in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the six sections featured in the debate was race in America. During this section, the topic of criminal justice reform was fiercely debated by both candidates. Among the most contentious topics was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (better known as the 1994 Crime Bill) which Joe Biden drafted and co-sponsored. Trump repeatedly skewered Biden over the 1994 Crime Bill, and rightfully so. That brings us to the question, what exactly was that piece of legislation, and what were the resulting consequences for Americans?
The 1994 Crime Bill was the largest crime bill in the history of the United States at over 300 pages long. The bill provided for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs. The bill greatly expanded the federal death penalty, created new classes of individuals banned from possessing firearms, and created a variety of new crimes in the areas of hate crimes, sex crimes, and gang-related crime. The bill also required states to establish registries for sexual offenders by September 1997.
Some of the policies included in the 1994 Crime Bill are still widely supported today. This includes the Violence Against Women Act, the federal assault weapons ban, funding background checks for guns, and funding for drug courts (which, in practice, unfortunately never came about). These provisions have allowed for great strides in preventing domestic abuse and violence and have set the stage for more aggressive gun control measures.
While there were some positive aspects of the 1994 Crime Bill, the negatives aspects far outweigh them. One of the biggest issues with the bill is its role in accelerating mass incarceration in America. This can be linked to truth-in-sentencing provisions, mandatory minimums, the three strikes law, and a massive infusion of cash to states in order to incentivize the construction of prisons and the lengthening of sentences. Although the bill’s role in accelerating mass incarceration is disputed by some, most sources agree that it had an impact.
The bill also expanded the number of crimes that could be punished with the death penalty, furthered the war on drugs, and encouraged states to pass more punitive statutes that would incarcerate more people for longer lengths of time. These practices have disproportionately affected Black Americans, who are more likely to have encounters with police that lead to imprisonment. Policies like the three strikes law were a major factor in limiting their chances of attaining employment and increasing the likelihood that they will return to prison.
Regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins the election in November, the path forward for fixing the damage done by the 1994 Crime Bill will be difficult. There are already some proposals in circulation as to how to address this, including amending the legislation, offering reparations to those affected for their time served in prison, or passing new legislation altogether. However, all of these solutions require the support of both houses of Congress as well as the president. Neither candidate has stepped forward as of now to support any of these options. Therefore, it is likely that the damage done by the 1994 Crime Bill will continue to plague our country.