“Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets,” President Bill Clinton said in 1994 as he signed a far-reaching anti-crime bill to bipartisan acclaim.Defending the law at the time, a frightened era of crack cocaine wars and record murder rates, Hillary Clinton, as first lady, warned about an emerging generation of “super-predators” — a notion she later repudiated.Confronted last week by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. Clinton defended his tough crime stance, even though he, like Mrs. Clinton, has joined in recent calls for sweeping reforms in criminal sentencing.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was a composite measure, with elements reflecting opposing impulses. It offered incentives to states to build more prisons if they toughened sentences, and it added some mandatory minimum sentences to those that already existed. But it also promoted the expansion of community policing and drug courts as alternatives to jail. It established a federal “three strikes” law and expanded the federal death penalty, but outlawed assault rifles.Some critics portray the law as a critical turning point as the country rushed to put more low-level offenders in prison, ravaging low-income communities.But in fact, the data shows, the startling rise in imprisonment was already well underway by 1994, with roots in a federal government war on drugs that was embraced by Democratic and Republican leaders alike.