Tallying the extent of the Clinton-era crime bills

by Peter Wagner, May 25, 2016

While many current and recent presidential candidates have called for ending mass incarceration and have been critical of the “Clinton crime bill,” their proposals have been short on specifics. Even more troubling however, is their narrow view — and that of many journalists — of Bill Clinton’s criminal justice legacy. The problem isn’t one bill, or two or even three but at least seven bills. (And we probably missed some. Please leave a discussion of bills we missed in the comments section below.)

Of course, some of the bills were so bad they have already been partially repealed by Congress, and most states have already formally rejected the offensive idea of using criminal records to deny hungry people food. And, of course, some of the provisions of some of the bills have since expired.

But here is our list of where a review of the criminal justice legacy of the Clinton era should begin:

  • 1994: Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act put 100,000 more police on the streets and created federal economic incentives for states to make their own laws more punitive. This law also made low-income incarcerated people ineligible for Pell Grants to pay for higher education courses.
  • 1996: The Prison Litigation Reform Act made it harder for incarcerated people to use the federal courts to protect their civil rights, and made it easier for prisons and jails to escape oversight of their operations.
  • 1996: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act made it harder for wrongly convicted people to prove their innocence. (Liliana Segura at The Intercept has an excellent article about the political machinations behind the effort to gut the ancient right of habeas corpus.)
  • 1996: Megan’s Law required states to share law enforcement’s databases of people who have committed sex offenses with the public. While no doubt well-intended, there is no evidence — despite years of scholarly effort — to indicate that these laws reduce sex offender recidivism. In fact, they seem increasingly likely to be exacerbating it while wasting resources and time that could be spent on other, more effective law enforcement activities.
  • 1996: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, aka the bill to “end welfare as we know it,” also included provisions that banned, for life, people with drug felony convictions from ever receiving food stamps.
  • 1997: The Adoption and Safe Families Act required states to move more quickly to terminate parental rights and place children who are in foster homes up for adoption. One side effect of this law is it made it more likely that any incarcerated parent with a sentence of at least 15 months — even if their crime did not involve their children — could lose their children forever.
  • 1998: The Higher Education Amendments of 1998 delayed or denied federal financial aid for college to anyone with a misdemeanor or felony drug conviction.

While Megan’s Law continues to be expanded, some of these laws have expired or are in one way or another rolling back. For example:

  • The federal grants in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that supported prison construction and the hiring of more police have long since expired. And there is now a pilot program to once again give incarcerated people access to Pell grants.
  • 44 states, most recently Texas in September 2015 and Alabama in February 2016 have partially or fully opted out of the requirement to deny hungry people with past drug convictions access to food stamps.
  • Some states like Washington and New York have implemented the Adoption and Safe Families Act in a way that protects the parental rights of families temporarily separated by incarceration.
  • In 2006, the Higher Education Act was amended to limit the prohibition of people with drug convictions from receiving federal aid to only those who were convicted while they were receiving federal aid.

Ending mass incarceration will require far more than repealing one – or seven – of Bill Clinton’s crime bills. But one test of whether an elected official is serious about ending mass incarceration is whether he or she recognizes the complexity of how mass incarceration came to be and can put forth sufficiently complex remedies to undo that harm.

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