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The Democrats’ Shameful Legacy on Crime

Bill Clinton isn't the only one who deserves blame for turning America into a carceral state.

AP Photo

A week before he swept the South on Super Tuesday in 1992, Bill Clinton held an event in Stone Mountain, Georgia, the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. His campaign had gathered dozens of mostly black inmates for a photo op in the courtyard of the Stone Mountain Correctional Institution, which was built at the base of the massive Confederate bas-relief carved into the side of the mountain. Some of the other presidential contenders saw the event as little more than a cynical racial appeal to socially conservative white voters. “Two white men and 40 black prisoners, what’s he saying?” California Governor Jerry Brown asked. “He’s saying, we got ’em under control folks, don’t worry.”

Two and a half years later, when Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in American history, Brown’s words proved prescient; Clinton had the crime issue under control. For decades, a growing number of Democrats had been trying to reposition themselves as the party of law enforcement and to lure white voters away from the GOP. With Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging Clinton to seize control of the issue by “upping the ante,” Democrats and Republicans engaged in a bidding war to see who could be the toughest and meanest sheriff in town.

The $30 billion law, passed 25 years ago this month, was the capstone of their efforts. It included some modest funding for crime prevention programs, such as “midnight basketball,” but its main thrust was a vast array of punitive measures. The crime bill funded 100,000 new police officers, established a federal three-strikes law, authorized more than $12 billion to prod states to lengthen time served and build new prisons, banned certain assault weapons, created dozens of new death penalty offenses, and ended federal educational Pell grants for inmates. The crime bill did not significantly lower crime rates; it did, however, help transform the United States into the world’s warden, incarcerating more of its residents than any other country.

The United States has now begun a long overdue national reckoning about the bill—four years ago, Hillary Clinton faced questions about her and Bill Clinton’s complicity in mass incarceration, and Biden has also had to answer for his leading role in engineering the punitive turn taken by the Democratic Party. But this reckoning still falls far short, partly because deep misunderstandings persist about the wider impact of the bill and other get-tough measures that built the carceral state over the last five decades.

While the Clintons and Biden are guilty as charged, they had many accomplices, some of whom were not the usual suspects. For years, House and Senate Democrats had been pushing new legislation to curb domestic violence, but it did not come up for a floor vote until the Senate incorporated the measure into the crime bill in fall 1993. To its credit, the Violence Against Women Act heightened public awareness of sexual assault and domestic violence and provided states and communities with important new resources for crisis centers, shelters, hotlines, and prevention programs. But VAWA also emphasized law enforcement remedies and included measures that raised serious civil rights concerns—all with the help of many national and local organizations working against rape and domestic violence. Many of these groups have since had second thoughts about “carceral feminism.”

During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton claimed that the crime bill was passed with strong support from African Americans who were clamoring for tough measures to halt rising crime rates. In reality, African Americans were deeply divided over the legislation and other criminal justice issues. These divisions have only widened in the 25 years since then, as a new generation of “post-racial” black politicians sought to appeal to white and African American voters by castigating young black men and women as addicts, drug dealers, and common street criminals. (In one notable example from 2011, then-Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia chastised black fathers as “sperm donors” and “doggone hoodie-wearing teens.”) With the rise of Black Lives Matter, however, these and other activists are at last calling attention to the ways in which mass incarceration constitutes a new system of social control, one with disturbing parallels to the old Jim Crow era.

This stark reality is now a leading public issue, as it should be. But it overshadows the deepening impact of the carceral state on other demographic groups. The incarceration rate for white Americans—about 633 per 100,000 residents—appears relatively low compared to the rates for African Americans (3,044 per 100,000) and Hispanics (1,305 per 100,000), but it is more than ten times the national incarceration rates of certain Western European countries. All told, half of all adults in the United States—or about 113 million people—have seen an immediate family member go to jail or prison for at least one night.

Fortunately, the number of incarcerated African Americans has declined since the turn of the twenty-first century. As of 2017, it was 17 percent lower than it was in 2001; but the number was about 7 percent higher for whites, in part because of a spike in the number of white women held in prisons and jails. Incarceration rates are also rising in rural communities. A decade ago, residents of rural, suburban, and urban areas had about an equal chance of being sent to prison. Today, people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to be sent away. (As of 2014, Dearborn County, Indiana, which is 97 percent white, had more of its residents incarcerated than San Francisco, which has a population at least 17 times larger.)

A recent report by the Vera Institute concluded that at the current pace of reform, “it will be 149 years until U.S. prison incarceration rates are as low as they were in 1970.” Movements to speed up that process, dismantling the carceral state piece by piece, will only succeed if they forge new alliances that stretch from the hollers of Appalachia to the streets of North Philadelphia.