20 Years Later, Parts Of Major Crime Bill Viewed As Terrible Mistake In 1994, Congress passed the most significant crime-fighting legislation in a generation. Now, policymakers are dialing back Clinton's tough-on-crime policies.


20 Years Later, Parts Of Major Crime Bill Viewed As Terrible Mistake

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This next story examines the effects of an old law that to many people seemed like a good idea at the time. Twenty years ago this week, in 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a crime bill. It was fiercely debated during an election campaign. The measure paid to put more cops on the beat. It trained police and lawyers to investigate domestic violence. It put more people in more prisons and was, in effect, a long-term experiment in how to fight crime. Twenty years later, we can gauge what worked and what did not. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: President Bill Clinton described his motivation to pass the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act in stark terms.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools. Every day, we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder.

JOHNSON: And if Clinton and Congress reflected the punitive mindset of the American people, what they didn't know was that soaring murder rates and violent crime had already begun a long, downward turn. Nicholas Turner's president of the Vera Institute, a nonprofit that researches crime policy. Turner took a moment to consider the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1990s.

NICHOLAS TURNER: Criminal justice policy was very much driven by public sentiment and political instinct to appeal to the more negative, punitive elements of public sentiment, rather than to be driven by facts.

JOHNSON: And that public sentiment called for filling up the nation's prisons, a key part of the 1994 crime bill. Jeremy Travis is president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

JEREMY TRAVIS: Here's the federal government coming in and saying, we'll give you money if you punish people more severely. And 28 states and the District of Columbia followed the money and took those federal dollars and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses.

JOHNSON: But as Travis now knows all too well, there's a problem with that idea. Researchers, including a National Academy of Sciences panel he led, have since found only a modest relationship between incarceration and lower crime rates.

TRAVIS: We now know, with the fullness of time, that we made some terrible mistakes. And those mistakes were to ramp up the use of prison. And that big mistake is the one that we now have to, 20 years later, come to grips with. We have to look in the mirror and say, look what we have done.

JOHNSON: Nick Turner of Vera puts the human cost even more starkly.

TURNER: If you're a black baby born today, you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail. If you're Latino, it's a 1 in 6 chance. And if you're white, it's 1 in 17. So coming to terms with these disparities and reversing them is not only a matter of fairness and justice, but it's a matter, I would argue, of national security.

JOHNSON: Talk to combatants in the long and sometimes nasty debate over the crime bill 20 years ago, and another item on the table back then looks different with hindsight too - a concept known as midnight basketball. Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia voted against the bill years ago, in part because it didn't do enough to support prevention programs like that. I caught up with him between votes and a noisy hallway in the Capitol this week.

REPRESENTATIVE BOBBY SCOTT: Midnight basketball was described as paying money so that crack-heads could play basketball in the middle of the night. What they left out was the fact that every time they put a midnight basketball program in an area, the crime rate plummeted. You saved more money than you spent on the midnight basketball. They left that part out.

JOHNSON: Funding for the midnight basketball program never fully materialized because of political fights over the bill. But today, ideas like that one win support from Republican governors who have branded their approach as right on crime. They're taking money away from prisons and putting it into social programs. Lately, the Obama administration, including Vice President Joe Biden, the lead Senate sponsor of that 1994 bill, is embracing those very policies and supporting new legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison terms. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Now, tomorrow on Weekend Edition, Carrie is going to look at some of the programs from the 1994 crime bill that have stood the test of time. A key part of Carrie's story is how perception became reality.

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