Monday, April 11, 2016

The Ghost of Incarcerations Past

Prison Rates, Crime Rates, and the 1990's:

“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.
Here's the video that caused the uproar. While the former president looks weak and kind of haggard (he never had the strongest voice, even 20 years ago), the "confrontation" doesn't seem as "epic" as pundits are claiming it to be.


Yeah, he gets pissed and riled up, but he should be, because the protesters are exactly right to point out the devastating effects of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (which I and others have been yammering about for years now) on particularly the black community.

His claim that "violent crime was peaking" in 1994 is wrong (crime peaked in 1991 and was coming down already). And while the article and some criminologists say the bill had only a modest increase on imprisonment rates, other data suggests this isn't true.
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.
Yes and no. Yes, imprisonment was on the rise, going back to the Rockefeller drugs laws of the 70's, but the era of mass incarceration began in earnest with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986*. These two monster bills doubled the prison population from 330,000 in 1980 to 750,000 in 1991. 

So Clinton's Violent Crime Control and LE Act was like throwing gasoline on the fire and wondering why the fire didn't go out. The prison population doubled AGAIN in the 1990's, from 750,000 in 1991 to 1.5 million in 2000 when he left office. Not only did the Act put the much-vaunted 100,000 new police officers on the street (many of whom were untrained and ill-equipped), but the act earmarked more than $10 billion to the states specifically for prison construction only. 

Now I know, in this day and age of hundred billion dollar bank bailouts, etc., $10 billion sounds like chump change. But even adjusted for inflation, it was a staggering amount of money to dangle in front of the states and say "for prisons only."

That's where the whole Field of Dreams ethos in incarceration began: "if you build it, they will come." If you build $10 billion worth of new prison beds, we'll fill 'em, don't worry, whether the crime rates (which were in free fall by that point) justify it or not.

Even though the article suggests it "may have" contributed to the explosion in incarceration rates, there is really no doubt that it did, in fact, double it. 

So what to make of this today? Did the politics of the time period necessitate his (and defacto Mrs. Clinton's) embrace of these draconian policies? One can certainly argue that, if by "necessitate" you mean "do whatever is necessary to get elected."

And that's what is it at the core of the debate on the Democratic side here: Secretary Clinton's embrace of political expediency over principle. The former president was the master of "triangulation" or third way politics, but all that was, or is, is code for "selling out" or compromising your principles. Embracing and pushing that bill, which doubled the prison population and wreaked havoc on a generation of young men, the majority of whom were disproportionately poor and black, is not "new" or "third way"...it's good old fashioned strong arm, brutal, class/race warfare politics. 

And lest you think this is simply an attack on the Clinton's: Bernie Sanders voted for this monstrosity of evil, as did the current vice president Joe Biden, and virtually every Democrat still around today. In fact the only two Democrats to vote against it were Paul Simon and and Russ Feingold.

So even though I hate to wade into partisan politics, particularly in an election year like this, there is simply no way for me to ignore or dismiss this issue as a non-starter. The bill (and its election-year cousins two years later**, the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act and 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effect Death Penalty Act) wiped out a generation of African-American men and women, and on their backs, got a lot of wealthy, white Democrats and Republicans re-elected over and over again.

Let me use an Arkansas metaphor the former president might appreciate: you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still just a pig. And 20 years +, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 remains a monster pig at that.

* Note the years on these massive crime bills: 1984, 1986, 1994, 1996. Viz. one only passes massive, monstrous get tough bills like these in an election year; not because crime only goes up in even numbered years, but because, well, duh: it's an election year, and every politician, left and right, needs to run for re-election on something.

** Ibid.

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