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Black Lives Matter Protesters Spar With Bill Clinton Over 1994 Crime Bill


The Clinton campaign had a hiccup yesterday. President Bill Clinton was at stop in Philadelphia when protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement shouted him down. They said Hillary Clinton should be charged with crimes against humanity for supporting the anti-crime law Bill Clinton signed in 1994. That law funded 100,000 more police officers and new prisons. It also set harsher prison sentences, especially for repeat offenders.

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has backed away from her previous support of that law. The law's defenders say it helped reduce crime. Critics say it threw black people in prison in record numbers. I asked Fordham University law professor John Pfaff what the data show.

JOHN PFAFF: In fact, by the time the law was passed, we were well underway to mass incarceration. By 1994, prison populations had grown by about 250 percent from 1978. And in fact, after 1994, the rate of growth actually slowed down. So we kept adding more and more people, but actually at a slower rate.

SHAPIRO: And what about drug offenders specifically?

PFAFF: So if you look at the state systems, where most people are held in prison, the fraction who are in on drug charges actually started to decline over the course of the 1990s.

SHAPIRO: That sounds completely out of sync with what we are told this crime bill accomplished or the negative consequences the crime bill had.

PFAFF: I mean, I think the crime bill increased the number of drug offenders in federal prison, but the feds make up about 13 percent of all inmates. Eighty-seven percent are held in the state system. And the crime bill's impact on the state system was actually fairly minimal.

SHAPIRO: And so what was the driver of the mass incarceration that we have seen over the last few decades if it wasn't this 1994 crime bill?

PFAFF: So I think it was - a lot of changes actually took place at the state and at the county level. DAs became more aggressive. States passed tougher sentencing laws. Also, simply between 1960 and 1991, we did see a fairly sizable increase in violent and property crime. And some of it was just a response to the underlying trends in offending.

SHAPIRO: If those were the prison numbers, what happened to the crime numbers?

PFAFF: So crime went up until around 1991 and then began sort of a long, slow, steady decline that's continued through pretty much to today.

SHAPIRO: That suggests that the decline in crime that the bill's defenders credit the bill with accomplishing actually started before the bill was even passed.

PFAFF: They did. They started about four years before the bill went into effect. Crime started to go down, and there's no real indication that it went down any faster after the bill was passed. So it didn't seem to change the trends that were already in place.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying the Clintons cannot be credited with the drop in crime, and they also shouldn't be blamed for the increase in incarceration.

PFAFF: I think that's right. The bill did not raise incarceration, but it also did not reduce crime. Its impact on both was fairly minimal, which is not to say it was a good bill. Many of its provisions were clearly ineffective at the time it was written - three strike laws or forcing violent offenders to spend more time in prison. These things - we already knew at that - in the 1990s that this kind of tough, luck-them-up, throw-away-the-key approach wasn't an effective way to handle crime. So it wasn't sound policy, but I think its overall impact on both prisons and crime was fairly slight.

SHAPIRO: How is it possible that a bill that requires people to spend more time in prison, that says three strikes, you're out, actually didn't have the effect of increasing the prison population?

PFAFF: Most of its tough-on-crime parts like the strike laws only applied to federal offenses. And there just aren't that many federal crimes. Its main state visions were aimed at getting states to spend more money to put violent offenders away for longer periods of time. But in the end, only about four states, actually, really took advantage of that grant program.

SHAPIRO: And so do you think that this political debate we're seeing today is completely misguided, or is there actually truth and value in it?

PFAFF: I think there'd be more value in it if we emphasized how - the things the crime bill could've focused on, but didn't, that matter today. So for example, the crime bill focused - provided no assistance, say, for public defense, which is a huge crisis today. Public defenders' offices are underfunded and overwhelmed. Eighty percent of defendants needs this kind of assistance, and they're getting swamped. And the debate was something like, why did you focus on three strikes and tougher sentencing laws and not on public defense? We could fix the problems we have today. But I think a lot of it is sort of re-litigating something that doesn't really matter that much now.

SHAPIRO: That's Fordham law professor John Pfaff speaking with us about the 1994 crime bill. Thanks a lot.

PFAFF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.