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About that Crime Bill…

POSTED: August 20, 2020, 3:00 pm

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In the wake of the Democratic Party’s nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden as its 2020 presidential candidate, and his selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate, H.R. 3355 (103rd Congress), the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (‘The Clinton Crime Bill’), has become a center of debate in the Black community. The bill was signed into law as Pub.L. 103–322 by President Clinton on September 13, 1994. At the heart of this debate is the belief and insistence by some Blacks, and many social justice activists, that Biden was singularly responsible for the wave of mass incarceration of Blacks that occurred after the bill became law. Upon closer examination, that is simply not the case.

The so-called ‘Clinton Crime Bill” was passed in the wake of a wave of violence across the nation in 1993, including mass shootings and drug related shootings. Among the incidents were the Waco, Texas siege and the 101 California Street mass shooting (man walked into a law firm in California and killed 8 people). There was a demand across the country from mayors and governors, and community activists, for the federal government to take action to stem crime. It was a time when guns and drug trafficking intersected for a deadly wave of violence across the country. In many cities, Black families were demanding action as children were becoming victims simply due to their innocently playing outside on their city block. The bill had the support of most of the Black faith-based leaders in the nation with every major Black Christian religious denomination endorsing the bill and most Black mayors. What is lost in current debates on the crime bill is the context in which the bill was written, passed by Congress, and signed by President Clinton.

Among the provisions of the bill were funds for the hiring of 100,000 police officers, almost $10 billion to build prisons and $6 billion for prevention programs. The bill included the Assault Weapons Ban, the Violence against Women Act, new prohibitions on the possession of firearms and the requirement that states create registries for sexual offenders. A key focus of the bill was gang related activity. The bill was a hodgepodge of remedies meant to draw enough Republican votes to support a Democratic president’s legislative priority. Many Republican objected to the assault weapons ban because it was opposed by one of the party’s strongest constituencies, the National Rifle Association (NRA). Just the year before affiliated guns’ rights groups successfully upended the gubernatorial re-election campaign of New Jersey Governor Jim Florio, who successfully pushed through the nation’s first assault weapons ban and was widely praised for doing so. Florio lost his bid for a second term to the relatively unknown Republican Christine Todd Whitman.

On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats were also faced with a dilemma. The spike in violence was sweeping across many urban communities in Democratic congressional districts. Too ignore this reality left Black members of Congress susceptible to charges of being soft on crime and turning away when the perpetrators of violence looked like them. Still, some Black elected officials were concerned with provisions of the bill that increased the number of police on the streets and the expansion of prisons. How to balance the obvious need to curb violence against the fear that the criminal justice system would disproportionately come down on Black and brown people was a real dilemma.

The legislation was a major policy initiative of the Clinton administration as the president was taking heat for the spike in violent crimes across the nation. It is the largest crime bill in the history of Congress. It was a calculated move by President Clinton as the Democrats were facing midterm elections, always a gut check for the incumbent party. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Joe Biden, a fact for which he has come under attack over the last year but seemed to escape scrutiny during the 8 years he served as Vice President. Now, this could be due to the heightened awareness of injustices in the wake of the Black Lives Matters awakening or simply a matter of political expediency by activists sensing an opportunity to make a point. However, it should be expected that Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee under a Democratic president, would be the primary sponsor of the legislation. The House sponsor was Jack Brooks of Texas.

The bill passed the House with a 235 (Aye) and 195 (No) vote. Democrats cast 188 (Aye) and 64 (No) votes and Republicans 46 (Aye) and 131 (No) votes. There were 5 votes not recorded - 4 Democrats, 1 Republican.

Despite the narrative that Black elected officials did not voice concerns and simply acquiesced to the directions of President Clinton, the truth is that H.R. 3355 caused a great deal of hand wringing among members of the Congressional Black Caucus. If you voted no, you could be accused of being soft on crime. For many members who represented crime stricken urban communities, there was no safe vote.

The Black members of the House of Representative voting against the bill were Earl Hilliard (AL); Ron Dellums (CA); Maxine Waters (CA); John Lewis (GA); Cleo Fields (LA); John Conyers (MI); Bill Clay (MO); Donald Payne (NJ); Charles Rangel (NY); Mel Watt (NC); Louis Stokes (OH); and Bobby Scott (VA).

The following Black members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill: Julian Dixon (CA); Corrine Brown (FL); Carrie Meek (FL); Alcee Hastings (FL); Sanford Bishop (GA); Cynthia McKinney (GA); Bobby Rush (IL); Mel Reynolds (IL); Cardiss Collins (IL); William Jefferson (LA); Albert Wynn (MD); Kweisi Mfume (MD); Barbara Rose-Collins (IL); Bennie Thompson (MI); Alan Wheat (MO); Floyd Flake (NY); Ed Towns (NY); Major Owens (NY); Eva Clayton (NC); Lucien Blackwell (PA); Jim Clyburn (SC); Harold Ford (TN); and Eddie Johnson (TX).

The bill had the unintended consequence of mass incarceration of Black and Latinos, many of whom were involved in low-level drug dealing. It was not the intention of the sponsors of the bill but some of the provisions of the legislation placed many Blacks and Latinos in the crosshairs of law enforcement and the judicial system. As the data pointed out this outcome, in the years following the crime bill being signed into law there was a push for sentencing reform and eventually the movement to decriminalize marijuana.

For prosecutors and state Attorneys Generals, the reality is that you had to enforce the law handed down by Congress if you were going to honor your oath of office. Attorneys General like Kamala Harris were handed a set of circumstances beyond their control and a law that they were duty bound to follow. At most, they could work with their state legislature to reclassify certain nonviolent criminal offenses, such as for low quantity possession of marijuana, and reduce penalties. To place the burden of a federal law on a prosecutor has always been misplaced anger. It is also counterproductive, except for the purposes of lessons learned, to look at legislation passed almost 3 decades ago and critique it under current circumstances. No one can deny the negative consequences of H.R. 3355 but there were also some positive outcomes such as sex offender registries in states, crime prevention programs and the assault weapons ban. Lawmaking is messy, unpredictable and few can imagine at the time a bill is passed the ultimate impact of a new law.

As this presidential campaign proceeds, it will be important to get all the facts before critiquing the records of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. That is not a difficult thing to do. The information is now readily available through a Google or Library of Congress search. As you vote, it will be important to make an informed choice and not rely on social media posts created with ulterior motives.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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