1994 Crime Bill’s Effect on Mass Incarceration Was Limited: Study

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President Bill Clinton at signing of the 1994 Crime Bill. Then VP Joe Biden is standing behind his chair. Stock photo courtesy Fair.org

Critics of the nation’s more than two million people in prisons and jails frequently blame a law passed by Congress in 1994 for the mass incarceration that persists well into the 21st century.

A new analysis concludes that the statute actually had only a modest impact.

“Many states already had enhanced sentences for people convicted of violent offenses by the time the 1994 Crime Bill was enacted,” write criminologists William J. Sabol and  Thaddeus L. Johnson of Georgia State University.

“Few states appear to have changed their sentencing and release policies in order to secure federal prison funding once it became available” under the law.

Sabol and Johnson wrote their analysis for the Council on Criminal Justice, a new nonpartisan think tank studying criminal justice issues.

The Council on Thursday released the first of a planned series of papers examining the impact of the 1994 statute, which was signed 25 years ago Friday by President Bill Clinton.

The Council also issued an overview of the law by criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis.

Rosenfeld says the statute, which includes 33 sections spanning a wide range of criminal justice issues, “vividly reflected the era’s retributive mood and fortified the nation’s tough-on crime movement.”

“For years afterward,” he continued. “Elected officials haunted by spiking homicide rates and the ghost of Willie Horton continued to demonstrate a preference for harsh penalties and more prison beds, even as correctional budgets ballooned.”

(Horton was a major issue in Vice President George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis; Horton committed violent crimes while on furlough from a life prison term in Dukakis’ state.)

The Georgia State criminologists focused on the specific impact of the 1994 law, which has been an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, as several Democratic candidates have blamed former Vice President Joe Biden, a primary sponsor of the measure, for promoting mass incarceration.

Most prisoners in the U.S. are housed in state facilities. Although Congress authorized nearly $10 billion to encourage prison building by states, only $3 billion was spent in seven years of appropriations under the law.

By contrast, much more money—$7.6 billion—was spent on another major element of the 1994 law: helping localities hire 100,000 community policing officers.

The prison construction funds supported the addition of roughly 50,000 prison beds, about four percent of the states’ prison capacity at the time.

As most states toughened their sentencing laws before the federal law was enacted, the rate of state prisoner growth actually slowed from about seven percent per year in the years preceding the 1994 law to under three percent annually while federal funds were available, Georgia State’s Sabol and Johnson found.

The federal law created “incentive grants” for states under the title “Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing,” which was shortened to VOI/TIS by criminal justice practitioners.

It was based, the criminologists wrote, on the ideas that “a large gap between imposed sentences and actual time served undermined the deterrent effects of imprisonment, and that actual time served for violent offenders was not long enough to adequately punish or incapacitate them.”

The law said states could get prison-building funds from Washington only if they had laws requiring prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their stated terms.

Most states already had such requirements or were on their way to enacting them by the time the federal law went into effect.

A survey by the federal Government Accountability Office cited by Sabol and Johnson found that only four states said the federal crime law was a major factor in toughening their state laws.

The 1994 federal crime law did encourage states to require longer terms for prison inmates.

Increases in the average time served by inmates accounted for most of the
growth in the nation’s prison population from 1980 to 1996, Sabol and Johnson say, but that was mostly before federal prison-building aid was available.

Since 2000, the average time served “has not significantly increased and its contribution to prison growth has been modest,” the criminologists say.

The federal funding “reinforced policy trends regarding sentencing severity, especially for violent crimes, that existed prior to its launch,” conclude Sabol and Johnson. “More than spurring state-level changes, the programs appear to have aligned federal policy with what states already were doing on their own.”

The new paper on the 1994 law and mass incarceration may help clarify the current political debate on the 25-year-old-statute.

In his overview, criminologist Rosenfeld contrasted the law with the recently passed First Step Act, which he said is viewed by many observers “as an antidote for the punitive thrust” of the 1994 law.

First Step reduces sentences for drug convictions, but only in the federal system, where about 14 percent of U.S. prisoners are held.

President Donald Trump has said that, “Anyone associated with the 1994 Crime Bill will not have a chance of being elected [president.”

Noting that the law has been criticized for being harsh on minorities, Trump said, “In particular, African Americans will not be able to vote for” supporters of the law—a thinly veiled swipe at Joe Biden, considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, and one of his top rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who also voted for the 1994 bill.

Trump asserted that the First Step Law “helped fix the bad 1994 Bill!”

Rosenfeld said “the politics of criminal justice reform have undergone a major change in a quarter century,” adding that reform initiatives today reflect “a new consensus of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, about the need to roll back incarceration levels and expand opportunities for people released from prison.”

He concluded that, “A lengthy period of falling crime rates certainly was a precondition for passing The First Step Act, and for criminal justice reform more broadly. A sustained crime spike could undermine the new consensus and dash hopes for further reforms.”

The Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey for 2018 that was released this week reported a small increase in violent crime reports in recent years, but no one could reliably foretell if that trend will continue.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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