Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton's Overdue Shift on Crime

She acknowledges harsher penalties implemented in the '90s were a mistake.


Hillary Clinton
Credit: mdfriendofhillary / photo on flickr

Looking back on the 1994 crime bill that he signed, Bill Clinton is probably wishing it had included a shorter statute of limitations—not on crimes but on presidential responsibility. Today he finds himself pilloried for something he claimed as an achievement. An issue that once was a political asset for him is now a liability for his wife. 

The bill was an ungainly conglomerate of just about every idea anyone had for combating crime. It expanded the number of offenses punishable by death, banned "assault weapons" and included a "three strikes" provision imposing a life sentence for anyone convicted of a serious violent felony after two previous convictions on similar charges. With a price tag of $33 billion, it allocated funds for state prison construction, battered women's shelters, community policing and "midnight basketball" in troubled neighborhoods. 

It got through Congress with support from both parties and members ranging from John Kasich to Bernie Sanders. Some black mayors supported it, as did the Congressional Black Caucus, though with reservations. President Clinton said, "It puts the government firmly on the side of the people who abide by the law, not the criminals who break it." 

Much of it was an exercise in empty symbolism, like the stuff on the death penalty and military-style guns. It put too much emphasis on punishment, spent money on programs of questionable value and had no significant effect on the problem it addressed. Its defects were apparent at the time even to scribes like me, whose warnings landed on deaf ears. 

The measure was an attempt to deal with an epidemic of crime and violence. It was also an effort by Democrats to protect themselves from perennial Republican attacks on them for allegedly being soft on crime.

Trying to understand the 1994 crime bill without acknowledging the level of fear and the volume of mayhem then is like trying to explain McCarthyism without mentioning Josef Stalin. But like the Red Scare, this response was largely misinformed and misdirected. 

The most notable consequence was a proliferation of prisons. The nation's inmate population ballooned from about 1 million in 1994 to more than 1.6 million in 2008. The increase was intentional. What most Democrats and Republicans agreed on in 1994 was that the best thing to do with criminals was to put them behind bars—and the longer the better. 

It sounds like a foolproof solution: Take offenders off the streets and they can't offend. In practice, though, removing one criminal often just makes room for another one. A 2014 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that while more incarceration may have made a difference, "the magnitude of the reduction is highly uncertain" but "unlikely to have been large." 

The crime bill deserves only some of the blame for the surge in incarceration. The boom began in the 1980s, but crime rates soared anyway. That paradox might have been a clue that penitentiaries were not a miracle cure. 

But the logic of the supporters has always been of the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose variety. If we lock up more people and crime subsides, it proves they were right. If you lock up more people and crime increases, it indicates we didn't lock up enough people. 

That plan to add 100,000 cops, like most politicians' promises, didn't come true. The Justice Department's inspector general put the actual number at 60,000. And some of the officers were hired in places where they weren't needed and couldn't do much good, since the program sent federal money to serene communities, as well as those plagued by daily gunfire. 

In any event, having more cops doesn't necessarily result in less felonious activity. Most studies find that adding police manpower achieves nothing in this realm. "The moderate growth in policing certainly had no more than a 5 percent impact on crime rates and probably much less than that," University of California, Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring has written. 

In 1994, Hillary Clinton praised the crime bill as "both smart and tough," which was half-true. Today she says that some parts of it, particularly the harsher penalties, "were a mistake." This shift echoes her reversal on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which she supported then and regrets now. Her positions have a way of evolving in perfect conformity with her political needs. 

It's good for politicians to admit their mistakes. It's even better not to make them in the first place. 

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc. 

NEXT: Obama's Faint Praise of Hillary is Either Machiavellian or Dumb

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  1. Bill in the bedroom: “C’mon baby, just pretend it’s a microphone.”

    1. I believe Jennifer Flowers said it’s more like a cocktail wiener.

      1. Come now, all of our leaders have these foolish little affairs, it adds a bit of healthy zest to their lives. And our very best leaders admit making “mistakes” when necessary. But the fact of the matter is it was not a mistake; in fact, what we need now is to expand and strengthen our criminalization program, to make our society safer and to further protect our limp, American version of ordered liberty. The Internet, above all, is a terrain ripe for criminalization. We have made some progress in this area in New York, despite the outrageous “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated, liberal judge. See the documentation of our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case at:


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  2. The next time you hear someone bemoan the contentiousness and lack of bipartisanship in Washington, remind them that examples of “bipartisanship” include the 1994 crime bill, the Iraq war, and the War on Drugs.

    1. Oh…and also something called the Defense of Marriage Act.

      1. The Patriot Act, TARP, No Child Left Behind, etc…

  3. “I’m sorry I wrecked tens of thousands of lives unnecessarily. But everybody deserves a second chance, and I deserve to be president! Why do you hate women?” –Hillary

  4. The dems love laws.Remember the do nothing congress that passed to few bills? And these laws come with jail time and fines.They have been in the business of expanding criminal laws since Wilson and FDR.

    1. So do the repubs. If there is a hell, I hope all the politicians end up having to spend eternity actually abiding all the laws they pass.

  5. it was not the solution people thought it would be.

    “We never claimed it was a perfect law!”

  6. …as did the Congressional Black Caucus, though with reservations.

    Not enough pork?

    1. Reservations is culturally appropriating Native Americans.

  7. She’ll bravely make her stand as long as it’s politically expedient to do so. She’s a profile in courage and neither Mother Theresa nor Margaret Thatcher would be fit to shine her shoes. Hillary 2016!

  8. Hillary jumps on bandwagon. Film at 11.

  9. Aide: “The balanced breakfast program just created a generation of ultra-strong super-criminals.”
    Milhouse: “And midnight basketball taught them to function without sleep. ”

    When will you people learn??

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  11. “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” -Emma Goldman.1869 ? 1940.

    Bottom line: It really makes no difference which clown gets elected, the deep state will carry on exactly as before.

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    In your dream, all the rest were not frauds,

    In your dream, the constitution was not a scam,
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  12. You lament the ‘freak out’ over crime in the 90’s clearly giving the impression (see: freak out) that it was irrational etc

    Unlike say a Salem WitchTrial, when people were saying ‘there be dragons…’ There WERE dragons

    The homicide rate was as high as the mid 9’s, TWICE as high as now

    Reason, the mag that freaks out over ‘police violence’ implies that literally about FIFTEEN THOUSAND MORE HOMICIDES PER YEAR IH THE USA ain’t no thang

    (An extra 5 homicides per 100,000 equals roughly an extra 15 thousand homicides per 300 million)

    One YEAR of ‘excess’ homicides in the 90’s based on then honicide rates = geometrically more dead people than the 7.92 per MILLION black people and 2.92 per million while people the Guardian estimate were killed by police in 2015… Of course the overwhelming majority of which were clearly justified homicides

    It’s a freak out to take issue with literally FIFTEEN THOUSAND MORE PEOPLE KILLED EACH YR (for a total of about 30,000 per 3 million people based on a honicide rate over 9 per 100000)

    15000 more dead people (disproportionately black males by a huge margin) ain’t no thing cause it wasn’t evil police doing the (almost always) justified killings

    Tens of thousands of murders ain’t nothing to freak out over

    Just… Lol

    And no, that’s not to say the Crime Bill was good or bad. The issue is with the idea it was at all strange people were FREAKING OUT over many thousands more dead people each year- actual murders (overwhelming majority)

  13. No matter what, she will win.

  14. Incarceration has gone up and crime has gone down. It’s impossible to postulate a relationship between the two. Steve “Fox Butterfield” Chapman, is that you?

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