Many of the readers who have listened to some of the debates between candidates for President of the United States may be aware of a line of attack often used against former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders: “You voted for the 1994 crime bill.”
It’s a line used when the candidates on stage, all of whom are trying to become the presidential nominee from the Democratic Party, are trying to distinguish themselves from Senator Sanders and former Vice President Biden on the issue of criminal justice. It is especially important for other candidates to distinguish themselves from those two candidates because Senator Sanders and former Vice President Biden are viewed as frontrunners for the Democratic Party nomination. It is also a line that the other candidates use to try and convince their voters that they, not Senator Sanders or former Vice President Biden, should be trusted on the issue of criminal justice.
Which begs the question: What is the 1994 crime bill, and why is it so controversial? With the first caucus of the election year happening in Iowa tonight, answers to these questions are important.
The tricky thing about summarizing the 1994 crime bill is that the piece of legislation tried to address many issues, ranging from funding for police to gun control to domestic violence. The short story is that the 1994 crime bill, whose proper name is actually the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, was supposed to focus on enforcement of and prevention of violent crimes, though it did some things beyond that scope (a couple of which I will talk about later in this post). For a detailed summary of the 1994 crime bill, view the bill’s summary here.
As one might expect with a bill trying to deal with a wide range of issues, the reality of how “good” or “bad” it was is actually more complicated than many candidates might make it out to be.
In spite of that fact, there are, undoubtedly, parts of the bill that should make one question Biden and Sanders on criminal justice (since they both supported the act and Biden helped write it). For example:
- The bill “stripped all Pell Grant funding for college education for prisoners.” This sort of action counters the narrative among many (especially on the left) that incarceration should have a restorative element, that it should not just be about punishing someone for their actions, but that they also can be able to work towards being productive contributors to society when/if they leave prison.
- The bill provided $6 billion (in 1994 dollars) in funding “for prevention programs which were designed with significant input from experienced police officers”—money that was, from all accounts, spent on punitive measures for the most part. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea to let people with experience in law enforcement be able to have a say in how to prevent violent crime. The problem? As it turned out, that money was predominantly used for punitive measures—measures that would go against the ideal among many Democrats that there should be a restorative element to time in prison.
- The 1994 crime bill is blamed for being a factor in a drastic increase in incarceration in the United States. The extent to which the current mass incarceration issues should be attributed to the 1994 crime bill is up for debate, especially since the increase in mass incarceration was already beginning to happen, but there seems to be significant agreement from criminal justice scholars that the bill made this problem worse.
However, there were also some aspects of the 1994 crime bill that are either popular with progressives or popular on a bipartisan basis. Three of those aspects are as follows:
- There was considerable gun control in the 1994 crime bill. According to the bill’s summary, the bill, “Bans the manufacture of 19 military-style assault weapons, assault weapons with specific combat features, “copy-cat” models, and certain high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than ten rounds.” While one could debate the effectiveness of this form of gun control, the fact is that gun control tends to be a major aspect of most candidates’ platforms on the Democratic side, and that therefore the 1994 crime bill did much of what a lot of Democrats want on guns (including Democrats critical of Biden and Sanders for their support of the 1994 crime bill).
- One of the most popular aspects of the 1994 crime bill was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). VAWA, which was within the 1994 crime bill, added measures to better hold perpetrators of domestic violence accountable. For example, before the 1994 crime bill, “domestic abusers could cross state lines to avoid prosecution for beating their spouses, as law enforcement was not to required to listen to orders of protection filed in other states” (something that, from my understanding, was not possible after the act passed).
- VAWA, which as I said was under the 1994 crime bill, also created the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Before finding out that this hotline was established so recently, I have to admit to taking the existence of this hotline for granted; however, the fact is that the hotline is younger than I am (I’m twenty-five) and was only established thanks to the 1994 crime bill.
So, while it might make for a good debate line to be critical of Biden’s or Sanders’ support of the 1994 crime bill, the reality is somewhat complicated. Some aspects of it, such as the generally more punitive approach to crime as a result of the bill, have been quite controversial and even problematic. Other aspects, such as the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, are quite important. Regardless, it’s important to recognize both the good and the bad in the 1994 crime bill (as well as Biden’s and Sanders’ support of it), because otherwise, we’d be doing an injustice to ourselves and to others when evaluating the platforms these candidates have on criminal justice.
 https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/billfs.txt. I should note that this provision of the bill expired in 2004: https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/750656174/the-u-s-once-had-a-ban-on-assault-weapons-why-did-it-expire