Bill Clinton: Rewriting the History of His Crime Bill

Lauren Victoria Burke


From The Root and republished by our content partner New America Media


If Bill Clinton wanted to ignite another round of analysis of the Clinton crime bill (also known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act)—the largest crime bill in U.S. history, which he gleefully signed Sept. 13, 1994, in a grand production at the White House Rose Garden—congrats, Bill, you've got it. 

In response to Black Lives Matter protesters who interrupted his stump speech for his wife Thursday in Philadelphia, Clinton said: "I don't know how you would characterize gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens—[Hillary] didn't." The former president was answering a protester regarding Hillary Clinton's use of the term "superpredator" in 1996 in support of the multibillion-dollar crime legislation.

What Bill Clinton apparently forgot as he defended his wife for using the term is that Hillary Clinton apologized for that in February after a Black Lives Matter protester confronted her at a South Carolina fundraiser. But that's not the only way Bill Clinton was out of step in Philadelphia.  

"I had money for inner-city kids, for out-of-school activities. We had 110,000 police officers so we could put people on the street, not in these military vehicles, and so the police could look like the people they were policing," he added, then scolded the protesters: "You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth."

So let's tell the truth. The truth is that the Clinton crime bill was a strategic answer from the Democratic Party to the charge that it was "soft on crime," a charge that had dogged the party since Lee Atwater's famous Willie Horton ad that crushed the presidential campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988. The crime bill was passed by a Democratic-controlled House run by Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and a Democratic-controlled Senate run by Majority Leader George Mitchell. The Newt Gingrich Republican takeover didn't start until 1995.  

In February an article by Ohio State University professor Michelle Alexander went viral. The author of the book The New Jim Crow detailed the impact of the Clinton crime bill on black communities. "Bill championed the idea of a federal 'three strikes' law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, months later, signed a $30 billion crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces," Alexander pointed out.

The Clinton crime bill did add police, just as our revisionist-history 42nd president told the crowd in Philly. But that wasn't about police "looking" like the people they were policing. It led to what we have now and what many in Congress are now trying to roll back: an over-incarceration state that spends more than $80 billion in corrections and affects African Americans far out of proportion. If you put 100,000 more police officers on the street, where do you think these cops are going? The level of disproportion regarding policing of black and brown communities remains staggering, and the data are undeniable.  

In New York City alone from 2002 to present, there were over 5 million street stops and interrogations, and "blacks and Latino communities continue to be the overwhelming target of these tactics," according to data by the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. is now worse than it was in South Africa under apartheid. And South Africa is one of the world's top incarcerators, along with China and Russia. But no one is ahead of the world's No. 1 prison state: America. We remain the world's top incarcerator for a reason. And federal crime policy tends to be copied by the states in what is known as a "copycat effect." 



State spending on incarceration spiked 300 percent after the Clinton crime bill, which contained over $9 billion for prisons, was passed. We now have more than 2.2 million people behind bars. If that were the population of a U.S. city, it would be the fourth-largest city in the U.S., after Chicago. Thanks in large part to the 1994 bill, the U.S. now spends more money on incarceration than it does education. You can't put $9 billion into prisons and be shocked about what you get on the other end.

To hear Bill Clinton tell it, black leaders begged for his crime bill. As if his primary motivation were that "blacks wanted it." What he leaves out is that though there were some black elected officials who supported the bill, there were also others who fought hard against it. Why? In fear that it would do exactly what it did: spike incarceration and have a disproportionate impact on African Americans. 

There were 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1994; 12 voted against the Clinton crime bill on Aug. 21, 1994. Included in those "no" voters were Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), William Clay Sr. (D-Mo.), Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.).

The crime bill has proved to be bad policy, and several provisions, such as "three strikes you're out" and the ending of Pell Grants to educate prisoners, are now slowly being repealed.  

Bill Clinton knows this. That's why, during an NAACP meeting in July 2015, he admitted it. "I signed a bill that made the problem worse," he said. "And I want to admit it." He said this last year, months after his wife, Hillary, made a speech on criminal-justice reform at Columbia University.  

But many believe that the Bill Clinton who defended his crime bill Thursday was a truer reflection of his feelings than the Bill Clinton heard at the NAACP. 


Author Bio:

Lauren Victoria Burke is a Washington, D.C.-based political reporter who writes the Crew of 42 blog. She appears regularly on NewsOne Now with Roland Martin on TV One.


From The Root and republished by our content partner New America Media

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