Weekend Follow-Up #2: The 1994 Crime Bill and Mass Incarceration


The 1994 crime bill has come in for a lot of attention lately, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton have said they now regret some of its provisions. But which ones?

Generally speaking, liberals still applaud several of its biggest accomplishments: the assault weapon ban, the Violence Against Women Act, and the COPS program that funded additional police and better community training.

But Republicans exacted a price for this. In particular, they wanted an expansion of the death penalty and several provisions that stiffened sentencing of felons. As it turns out, though, Republicans didn’t have a very good idea of what their own favorite policies would actually accomplish. Are you surprised? For example, here’s the death penalty:

The crime bill created lots of new capital crimes, but its actual effect was nil. The death penalty was already losing support by 1994, and has been banned by an increasing number of states ever since. On the federal level, death sentences have always been a tiny fraction of the total (around four or five per year), and that didn’t change after 1994.

So what about sentencing? The crime bill did have an effect here, but it was generally pretty modest. Here are a couple of charts from an unpublished review of the law seven years after it passed:

Why the small effect? In the case of 3-strikes, it simply didn’t affect very many people. It did increase average time served by several months, but that’s about it. And the much-loathed Truth-in-Sentencing provisions had even less effect. This is because more than half the states already had TIS requirements even before the 1994 bill passed, and not many passed new ones as a result of the law. It did push up the trend in incarceration and time served by a few tenths of a percentage point, but that had only a minuscule effect on overall incarceration rates.

The crime bill also included a few other witless measures, like reducing educational opportunities for inmates, and it unquestionably contributed to the crime hysteria that was prevalent at the time. Nonetheless, its most hated features never had a big effect.

Two years later Clinton also signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which had some pretty objectionable changes to habeas corpus. This was arguably worse than anything in the 1994 bill, but it didn’t have a substantial overall effect on incarceration rates.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.