The bill banned assault weapons; it included the Violence Against Women Act; it added funding for community programs and more cops to address crime.
It also imposed harsh federal mandatory minimum sentencing; it codified a third-strike rule on the federal level; and it was part of a nationwide push of harsher criminal punishment and mass incarceration that unduly affected minority communities.
Once praised as emblematic of the Democrats' shift to the political center, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 is now remembered for the disparate impact of its harsh punitive proscriptions.
The bill was sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Sen. Bernie Sanders voted for the bill (though he registered his reservations at the time). Hillary Clinton supported it, and made a now-infamous comment while stumping for her husband in 1996 about the “super-predators” that the bill was meant to protect against. She has since said that she regrets the comment.
But the bill and her remark have been seized on by Black Lives Matter activists and criminal justice reformers who see it as a key example of the systemic racism that has gone unchecked for too long. The law continues to pop up on the campaign trail, as both Clintons struggle to explain their support of it, and to what extent that support was a mistake.
As she has before, Clinton noted the problematic consequences of the bill without repudiating it.
She noted the consequences of 20 years of mass incarceration, and said the “mentality about cracking down on crime” had been taken “too far.” She said she has come to the conclusion that racism “has had a very powerful and egregious impact on the criminal justice system.”
Still, she refused to back away from the bill, saying it was important to remind young people "that we had a serious lethal crime problem in America."
She noted sections of the bill such as the assault weapons ban and police force increase, which along with the bill at large “contributed to the decline in crime that we are enjoying today” — a contention which is hotly debated, particularly given the fact that the national decline in violent crime had begun before the bill's passage.
Clinton has straddled this middle ground on the bill before.
But when asked why it took lawmakers so long to understand the problems raised by the crime bill and other enduring issues of systemic racism in America, and why it had to take people marching in the streets to shift the conversation, Clinton put things a little differently: She thought cell phones were a key factor, in capturing videos of police brutality — harsh snapshots bringing a "heightened awareness" that didn’t exist before. These videos have "done a lot to get everybody to start asking these hard questions of ourselves," Clinton said.
This is precisely the point that the activists are trying to make. The answers to the “hard questions” were always there to be seen, as Clinton’s cell phone remark seems to acknowledge. It implies that there was something to be missed.
The secretary told the story of a young white man who used to work for her, who told her that years ago, when he was 16-years-old, he had a drug problem that led him to break into houses and commit robbery. Eventually he was caught, but the prosecutor knew his family and gave him a warning instead of jailing him, Clinton said.
She said the young man told her “I know that would not have been available to me if I were an African American or Latino kid.”
This dawning realization is no truer now than it was 20 years ago. What has changed?
Clinton is right that cell phone footage has led to easily accessible evidence of issues of police brutality that can circulate widely, drawing attention to underlying issues of systemic racism.
But the other change is the willingness of activists to push the issue, in the streets and in forums, online and in community board meetings, to challenge a centrist consensus on policing and race relations that has been unchanged for decades.
Without those activists, it’s hard to imagine any soul-searching at all about a criminal justice system that went too far.
The candidates are only beginning that conversation, which shouldn’t be halted or dismissed anytime soon—particularly given the lingering effects of the bill and Clinton's hedging on its worth.
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