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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.

  • Julia Bowling
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)