By Robert Weiner and John Black
Last week in New Hampshire, 2020 Democratic front runner Joe Biden was asked about criminal justice reform, specifically the 1994 Crime Bill, to which he responded: "When I wrote the crime bill, which you've been conditioned to say is a bad bill, there's only one provision that had to do with mandatory sentences that I opposed, and that was a thing called the 'three strikes and you're out,' which I thought was a mistake, but had a lot of other good things in the bill."
With the first Democratic Primary debate being held in Miami on June 26 and 27, rapidly approaching, he can and should stop being so defensive. The bill was a response to record drug abuse and a murder wave. Since the bill, monthly drug abuse has fallen by half, from 17% to 8% of the population, and violent crime and murders have likewise dropped.
There were certainly positives in the bill, like the federal assault weapons ban, community based policing, and the Violence Against Women Act, but twenty-five years later, the legacy of the legislation according to the critics is controversy and mass incarceration--at the time, however, even Bernie Sanders voted for the bill. In fact, the bill's comprehensive approach of prevention, treatment, enforcement, drug courts (now at 3000 from the original eight) instead of imprisonment, plus a foreign policy of anti-drug assistance against drug cultivation, has together led to the statistical successes. While you can't draw exact parallels, if any other American ill across the spectrum-- illiteracy, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, suicide, homelessness-- were reduced by half, would we call it a failure? We'd say "progress, and more needs to be done in better ways," That's where we are with crime and drug abuse.
Criminal justice reform will undoubtedly be a focal point in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Biden's history may trouble him if he doesn't concede to the need for different and more action to meet the situation now. But it's a fact that after the bill became law, decreases in crime and drug abuse dramatically shot up.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, however, studies show that even the mass incarceration enforced by the law actually "played a limited role" in decreasing crime. However, the Center's research shows that social and economic factors, such as an aging population and the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973, are more responsible.
In 1994, the Federal government granted $9 billion to states for the purpose of building prisons if they passed truth-in-sentencing laws requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. With so many additional police officers (100,000 more by the COPS program) and prison cells, the incentive to arrest and imprison people rose, leading to unjust rates of imprisonment in minority communities, especially African-American ones.
In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that Blacks and Hispanics made up 53-percent of the prison population while comprising only 28-percent of the US adult population. The imprisonment rate for African-Americans, however, is what stands out. For every 100,000 black people, 1,549 are imprisoned--nearly six times the rate for white imprisonment, and double the rate for Hispanic imprisonment.
Over the past two and a half decades the United States has developed a prison industrial complex. Rather than providing treatment and crime prevention programs, our criminal prosecution system has become expansive and punitive--70 percent of convictions result in imprisonment--and privatized prisons have become a tool for individual economic advancement--18 percent of federal prisoners are in private prisons.
Biden and others who supported the bill must acknowledge that America needs criminal justice reform. Our system should reflect the title we give it and actually provide justice, the Department of Corrections should provide education, support, and opportunity for individuals to correct their behavior. For too long we have been senselessly locking up American people instead of providing progressive rehabilitation--we haven't been fixing societal problems, only imprisoning them.
The issue is complicated. Opponents of the law must acknowledge the positives of the 1994 Crime Bill--like Biden's Violence Against Women Act--and re-implement its federal assault weapons ban, to stop the weapons that Clinton banned, but now are used in 95% of mass shootings killing ten or more. But we also need to further expand drug treatment rather than imprisonment. The nation is in the midst of an opioid epidemic with the scale reminiscent of crack in the '80s. Expanded and comprehensive care both at drug treatment centers and in-home must be available. An addict should not be a prisoner, but a patient. We need to end racial bias in policing, end the system that emphasizes punishment instead of improvement, and bring justice to all Americans.
Robert Weiner was spokesman for the Clinton and Bush White House, the U.S. House Government Operations and Judiciary Committees, and Chief of Staff for Cong. Claude Pepper's (D-FL) House Aging Committee.. John Black is a policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change.
(Article changed on June 26, 2019 at 18:33)