Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill Destroyed Lives, and There’s No Point Denying It
By Thomas Frank,
16 April 16
The former president made sure low-level drug users felt the full weight of state power at the same moment bankers saw the shackles that bound them removed
Here is an actual headline that appeared in the New York Times this week: Prison Rate Was Rising Years Before 1994 Law.
It is an unusual departure for a newspaper, since what is being reported here is not news but history – or, rather, a particular interpretation of history. The “1994 Law” to which the headline refers is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; the statement about the “prison rate” refers to the fact that America was already imprisoning a large portion of its population before that 1994 law was approved by Congress.
As historical interpretations go, this one is pretty non-controversial. Everyone who has heard about the “War on Drugs” knows that what we now call “mass incarceration”, the de facto national policy of locking up millions of low-level offenders, began long before 1994. And yet similar stories reporting that non-startling fact are now being published all across the American media landscape. That mass incarceration commenced before 1994 is apparently Big News.
Why report a historical fact that everyone already knows? The answer is because former president Bill Clinton, the man who called for and signed the 1994 crime bill, is also the husband of the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Democratic voters are having trouble squaring his draconian crime bill with his wife’s liberal image.
That might be the reason so many of these stories seem to unfold with the same goal in mind: to minimize Clinton’s moral culpability for what went on back in the 1990s. Mass incarceration was already happening, these stories agree. And besides, not everything in the crime bill was bad. As for its lamentable effects, well, they weren’t intentional. What’s more, Bill Clinton has apologized for it. He’s sorry for all those thousands of people who have had decades of their lives ruined by zealous prosecutors and local politicians using the tools Clinton accidentally gave them. He sure didn’t mean for that to happen.
When I was researching the 1994 crime bill for Listen, Liberal, my new book documenting the sins of liberalism, I remember being warned by a scholar who has studied mass incarceration for years that it was fruitless to ask Americans to care about the thousands of lives destroyed by the prison system. Today, however, the situation has reversed itself: now people do care about mass incarceration, largely thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and the intense scrutiny it has focused on police killings.
All of a sudden, the punitive frenzies of the 1980s and 1990s seem like something from a cruel foreign country. All of a sudden, Bill Clinton looks like a monster rather than a hero, and he now finds himself dogged by protesters as he campaigns for his wife, Hillary. And so the media has stepped up to do what it always does: reassure Americans that the nightmare isn’t real, that this honorable man did the best he could as president.
Allow me to offer a slightly different take on the 1990s. I think today (as I thought at the time) that there is indeed something worth criticizing when a Democratic president signs on to a national frenzy for punishment and endorses things like “three strikes”, “mandatory minimums”, and “truth in sentencing”, the latter being a cute euphemism for “no more parole”. The reason the 1994 crime bill upsets people is not because they stupidly believe Bill Clinton invented these things; it is because they know he encouraged them. Because the Democrats’ capitulation to the rightwing incarceration agenda was a turning point in its own right.
Another interesting fact. Two weeks after Clinton signed the big crime bill in September 1994, he enacted the Riegle-Neal interstate banking bill, the first in a series of moves deregulating the financial industry. The juxtaposition between the two is kind of shocking, when you think about it: low-level drug users felt the full weight of state power at the same moment that bankers saw the shackles that bound them removed. The newspaper headline announcing the discovery of this amazing historical finding will have to come from my imagination – Back-to-Back 1994 Laws Freed Bankers And Imprisoned Poor, perhaps – but the historical pattern is worth noting nevertheless, since it persisted all throughout Clinton’s administration.
For one class of Americans, Clinton brought emancipation, a prayed-for deliverance from out of Glass–Steagall’s house of bondage. For another class of Americans, Clinton brought discipline: long prison stretches for drug users; perpetual insecurity for welfare mothers; and intimidation for blue-collar workers whose bosses Clinton thoughtfully armed with the North American Free Trade Agreement. As I have written elsewhere, some got the carrot, others got the stick.
But what is most shocking in our current journo-historical understanding of the Clinton years is the idea that the mass imprisonment of people of color was an “unintended consequence” of the 1994 crime bill, to quote the New York Daily News’s paraphrase of Hillary Clinton. This is flatly, glaringly false, as the final, ugly chapter of the crime bill story confirms.
Back in the early 1990s, and although they were chemically almost identical, crack and powder cocaine were regarded very differently by the law. The drug identified with black users (crack) was treated as though it were 100 times as villainous as the same amount of cocaine, a drug popular with affluent professionals. This “now-notorious 100-to-one” sentencing disparity, as the New York Times put it, had been enacted back in 1986, and the 1994 crime law instructed the US Sentencing Commission to study the subject and adjust federal sentencing guidelines as it saw fit.
The Sentencing Commission duly recommended that the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity be abolished, largely because (as their lengthy report on the subject put it) “The 100-to-1 crack cocaine to powder cocaine quantity ratio is a primary cause of the growing disparity between sentences for black and white federal defendants.” By the time their report was released, however, Republicans had gained control of Congress, and they passed a bill explicitly overturning the decision of the Sentencing Commission. (Bernie Sanders, for the record, voted against that bill.)
The bill then went to President Clinton for approval. Shortly before it came to his desk he gave an inspiring speech deploring the mass incarceration of black Americans. “Blacks are right to think something is terribly wrong,” he said on that occasion, “… when there are more African American men in our correction system than in our colleges; when almost one in three African American men, in their twenties, are either in jail, on parole, or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal system. Nearly one in three.”
Two weeks after that speech, however, Clinton blandly affixed his signature to the bill retaining the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity, a disparity that had brought about the lopsided incarceration of black people. Clinton could have vetoed it, but he didn’t. He signed it.
Today we are told that mass incarceration was an “unintended consequence” of Clinton’s deeds.
For that to be true, however, Clinton would have not only had to ignore the Sentencing Commission’s findings but also to ignore the newspaper stories appearing all around him, which can be found easily on the internet to this day. Here’s one that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on 31 October 1995, in which it is noted that:
Civil rights organizations had led a telephone campaign to pressure the president to veto the bill. At a rally last week in Chicago, the Rev Jesse L Jackson said that Mr Clinton had the chance, ‘with one stroke of your veto pen, to correct the most grievous racial injustice built into our legal system.’
It is impossible to imagine that Bill Clinton, the brilliant Rhodes Scholar, didn’t understand what everyone was saying. How could he sign such a thing right after giving a big speech deploring its effects? How can he and his wife now claim it was all an accident, when the consequences were being discussed everywhere at the time? When everyone was warning and even begging him not to do it? Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe it was all a bad dream.
But it did happen. There it is, Bill Clinton’s signing statement on the website of the American Presidency Project. Yes, the 100-to-1 disparity was finally reduced in 2010, but we liberals still can’t ignore what Clinton did back in 1995. Every historian who writes about his administration will eventually have to deal with it.
Until then, we have our orders from the mainstream media: Clinton didn’t mean it. Clinton has apologized. Things were bad even before Clinton got started.
It is a hell of a way to do history. Millions of proudly open-minded people are being asked to twist themselves into propaganda pretzels to avoid acknowledging the obvious: that the leaders of our putatively left party aren’t who we think they are.