The Crime Bill's Legacy, Two Decades Later

Two decades ago, the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 – known as the “crime bill” – changed the landscape of criminal justice in the United States. The bill was responsible for a dramatic influx of federal funds that helped drive mass incarceration.

July 2, 2014

Two decades ago, the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 – known as the “crime bill” – changed the landscape of criminal justice in the United States. The bill was responsible for a dramatic influx of federal funds that helped drive mass incarceration. It included funding for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion for prisons, and $6.1 billion for crime prevention programs. Reflecting the overwrought “law and order” priorities of the time, the bill fueled the expansion of prisons, sustaining the explosive increase in incarceration. It was a prime example of how funding can create negative incentives: there are now half a million more people incarcerated than in 1994, making us by far the world’s largest jailor.

Harsher punishment was the crime bill’s core. It expanded the death penalty, creating 60 new death penalty offenses under 41 federal capital statutes. It eliminated education funding for incarcerated students, effectively gutting prison education programs. Despite a wealth of research showing education increases post-release employment, reduces recidivism, and improves outcomes for the formerly incarcerated and their families, this change has not been reversed.

And the bill created a wave of change toward harsher state sentencing policy. That change was driven by funding incentives: the bill’s $9.7 billion in federal funding for prison construction went only to states that adopted truth-in-sentencing (TIS) laws, which lead to defendants serving far longer prison terms. Within 5 years, 29 states had TIS laws on the books, 24 more than when the bill was signed. New York State received over $216 million by passing such laws. By 2000 the state had added over 12,000 prison beds and incarcerated 28 percent more people than a decade before.

But the crime bill also created programs that had some benefits, and are still alive and well today. One provision created the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which increased penalties for sex offenses and created related crime prevention programs. Reauthorized in 2013, VAWA also provides services to victims of domestic violence and training for law enforcement to respond to those calls. 

Another provision created the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office at the U.S. Department of Justice, to increase grant funding to hire more policing officers and fund research on effective policing tactics.  Partly as a result, police began to pay increasing attention to resource allocation and internal accountability. The bill made possible the shift in police numbers and tactics that, while controversial, helped shape the role law enforcement plays today in many American cities.

The legacy of the crime bill, then, is complicated. Its 20th anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on what the bill got right and what it got drastically wrong: specifically, the use of federal funds to bait states into increasing prison populations. In hindsight, it is evident that federal crime bill funding shifted policy towards over-punishment and mass incarceration.

By the same logic, Success Oriented Funding can shift policy away from mass incarceration and toward policies that keep our communities safe. The idea is simple: fund what works to improve public safety, and dump what doesn’t. Federal funds should be used to incentivize modern, data-driven criminal justice practices that reduce both mass incarceration and crime. If those principles had been in place two decades ago, we would never have had a crime bill that boosted prisons while leaving rehabilitation programs adrift.

Research assistance: Tyler Sloan

(Photo: Thinkstock)