Joe Biden, the Crime Bill, and Americans’ Short Memory
“I tell people today that the crime bill wasn’t that controversial back then,” says Michael Waldman, who in 1994 was a domestic-policy aide in Bill Clinton’s White House, and who now heads the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, a leading advocacy group and think tank on criminal-justice issues. Waldman personally deplores the bill’s effect on incarceration rates, even as he admires what he sees as its more salutary results, such as its emphasis on community policing.
“It was welfare reform that was controversial” at the time, he explained to me, referring to Clinton’s campaign promise to fundamentally restructure the social safety net. But for Biden, Waldman said, “it’s really hard to spend your time as a candidate explaining the past to the present. The view of that crime bill has hardened into a caricature. It’s a question of how much energy is it worth trying to fight it.”
Indeed, from the distance of 25 years, it is difficult to fathom the effect that three decades of rising crime, and the explosion of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s, had on public sentiment—or the political pressure it generated. Consider this as context: Today is precisely as distant in time from 1994 as 1994 was from the Charles Manson murders, the moon landing, and Woodstock. In other words, a world away. Public opinion around the bill has shifted rapidly in recent years. Just four years ago, Biden was still proudly referring to the law as the “1994 Biden Crime Bill.” As the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he championed the bill and helped shepherd its passage.
“It’s not only the Democratic Party that’s changed,” Waldman said. “It’s the country and the context that’s changed. Crime between 1960 and 1990 tripled … The level of social disruption and panic that caused is hard to explain now, because since then the crime rate has been dropping. We are living with the consequences of the reaction to the very real social crisis of the time.”
Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, who as House majority whip is the highest-ranking black member of Congress, voted for the crime bill, and he made the same point in vivid terms. In his first congressional race, in 1992, Clyburn once explained to an audience in the historic black enclave of Atlantic Beach that he opposed mandatory minimum prison sentences, which would become a feature of the 1994 legislation. “Those people darn near lynched me in that meeting, and there wasn’t a single white person in the room,” Clyburn told me. “The atmosphere back then—the scourge of crack cocaine and what it was doing in these African American communities—they were all for getting this out of their community.”
“I don’t care what color you are, if you are a criminal, you aren’t going to like the crime bill,” then-Representative Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, the chairman of the CBC, said at the time in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Beyond that, if you are looking for some sense of security, for bans on weapons that are in our streets, for additional police officers and for programs for inner-city and rural young people, the crime bill helps you.”