Monday, February 15, 2016

A Little Context on the 1994 Crime Bill

For one thing, as has been noted recently, it wasn't just Clinton who supported it but most of the Democratic party and indeed, the Congressional Black Caucus did. The Dem bill was to be sure less draconian than the GOP alternative.

And yes Bernie Sanders voted for it and was boasting of this until recently. So yes, the politics of it can change even for the allegedly unchangeable Bernie Sanders.

Interestingly, there was a recent piece by German Lopez in Vox which argued that, bad as the crime bill was, it isn't responsible for the mass incarceration of black men.

The reason he argues is that the issue of mass incarceration stems from state laws not federal.

Regarding the 1994 crime bill it gets lost that this was in response to a crime wave in the 70s, 80s,

and early 90s.

"In a pair of essays published this week, law professor Michelle Alexander andhistorian Donna Murch examined Hillary Clinton’s role in making the American criminal justice into the hyperpunitive monster that it is today. Both essays focused in part on the 1994 crime bill that Clinton championed during the first term of her husband’s presidency—a bill that expanded the use of the death penalty, created new three-strikes rules, and offered funding for states that made it harder for people to get parole. In Murch’s words, “Bill Clinton and his allies embarked on a draconian punishment campaign to outflank the Republicans,” while Hillary supported the effort and “stood resolutely at her husband’s side.” Alexander, the author of the influential book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, argued that Clinton’s past embrace of tough-on-crime policies is one of several reasons black voters shouldn’t support her. "

Pretty simple argument: Black folks shouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton because of the 1994 crime bill. But then why does Bernie get a pass? And even more importantly a good question is asked:

"The 1994 crime bill was meant to help, not hurt, black Americans. Does that matter?"

"For Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York and the author of the 2015 bookBlack Silent Majority, the two essays are emblematic of a tendency on the left to gloss over an important fact about the 1994 crime bill. Like many tough-on-crime policies that have been passed in the U.S. since the late 1960s, Fortner argues, the law enjoyed the support of many black activists and political leaders, who saw it as an imperfect but necessary measure to combat pervasive violence in poor black urban neighborhoods."

"That doesn’t mean there wasn’t ample debate about whether Clinton’s law was too punitive and whether it would actually be effective at reducing crime. But Fortner’s argument—which he also makes in his book in reference to the infamously harsh drug laws passed by Nelson Rockefeller in 1973—is that crime policy should not be seen as something that just happens to minority populations. “Black folks have agency,” as he put it to me. “Their voices had a huge impact in changing the narrative around urban crime and drug addition and pushing it in a way that validated very punitive crime policies.”

"I spoke to Fortner about the complex politics behind the ‘94 bill and why the coalition of black leaders who supported the Clintons in passing it should not be forgotten. Our conversation has been edited and condensed."

"I recently heard you say that undoing the disaster of mass incarceration requires a serious reckoning with the problem that triggered it: crime. What did you think of how these two essays handled that issue?

"If you read these two pieces, you’d get the sense that crime policy was not developed to solve any problem, that these laws were created just to put away black folks. In many ways, I started my journey in this literature because I thought the dominant scholars were completely ignoring the effects of crime on people’s lives. I grew up in Brownsville [a high-crime neighborhood in Brooklyn], and I remember what crime felt like. And these academic discussions, these ideological discussions about crime, completely ignore the terror in the streets. They completely ignore how crime shaped whether you went to church at night or how you felt coming home from work."

"Once you add that to the picture, I think crime policy becomes less suspicious. That doesn’t mean it becomes less problematic. These were dumb policies. But they begin to have a logic that is not strictly tied to racial or economic imperatives. It begins to have a logic that’s tied to people wanting to live normal, safe lives in urban communities, and politicians who responded to those pleas for greater public safety in ways that also lined up with their own political interests."

While mass incarceration is a real problem that Hillary has a strong policy platform to end, Forner's a welcome source to provide more context. If you want to know a lot more, his book is a great place to go next.

Ben Jealous tore into Hillary recently on Rachel Maddow and one thing he attacked her for was not getting on board in 2008 for the end of the crack-cocaine disparity in criminal sentencing

But again, Fortner is a welcome reality check in making this discussion in a historically blinkered, uninformed way.

"Well, in 1973, in New York, many black activists pushed for drug laws, and in the ’80s many black activists pushed for punitive crime policies and supported aspects of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. When Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law, the one that created the crack-cocaine disparity, Charlie Rangel was onstage with him. And at the time they pushed this because they thought previous policies were not doing the job and that they needed to get tougher on the drug problem in urban communities. And as the drug problem worsened, many of them continued to push for more punitive policies and more aggressive policing."

"I think they saw these things as inadequate but necessary solutions to very urgent problems. And I think they did not foresee the unintended consequences of those policies. … They thought they would stop the violence. And they thought they needed some type of mechanism to create safe streets for people who were not committing crimes, who needed to go to work, who needed to take their kids to school. And this speaks to the urgency of the situation—yes, they realized there was a host of other structural issues going on and they wanted remedies for those things, but they also felt like life in the inner city was just untenable. People were unable to live normal lives."

So this historical perspective shows that the story of a Ben Jealous or Michelle Alexander is a rather one sided and simplistic.


  1. Interesting thought on how Obama could use the Supreme Court nomination like a weapon: pick somebody uncomfortable. Pick a Republican senator. An establishment one. One that the establishment would be inclined to approve... but one that will let loose howls of outrage from the extreme right. Basically just use it to cause more discord on the right.

    Rubio might be perfect. Of course he wouldn't accept that. But think of the fun. The establishment might think they couldn't get a better deal than that... especially with an uncertain future. Coulter and friends would go ape-shit. You gotta admit it'd be fun!

    And of COURSE I wouldn't actually want Rubio on the court!

  2. I don't know-if Obama did that the GOP would be smart to just confirm him.

    Obama shouldn't' even try to put someone at all moderate or acceptable as the GOP has already preemptively vowed to vote down any choice. He ought to put up someone they hate like Eric Holder. That I'd like to see!

    1. Yes, I can see that. However that wouldn't cause as much internecine strife on the right. I think he should shoot for that and nothing more... maximize the strife he causes, w/o actually being in danger of getting the person on the court.

      Maybe Ted Nugent would be a good choice. Let the senate reject "one of their own."

      How about Michael Savage: deeply hated by Levin and Limbaugh.

      Man, I just think there's a lot of fun to be had here.

      Sheldon Adelson or Rupert Murdoch would also be interesting choices.

      If Sarah Palin was about 30 years older, she'd be good.

      "I don't know-if Obama did that the GOP would be smart to just confirm him."

      I don't think they're capable. Obama nominated him, so they can't really go there. President Blackenstein soiled it, so they don't want to get Blackenstein cooties.

      The group intelligence of the GOP is running at about 65 points now in my estimation. Emotional I.Q. at about half that.

  3. I have to say I don't see your argument in this case. If he put up a Right winger they'd take it.

    It's not like a cabinet position, it's the next 40 years on the SJC.

    The comic relief here would be Obama making such a monumental error-which he wouldn't make! LOL

    1. Well like I say, not anybody the Senate would actually pass. The dull thing to do is nominate a liberal. That would only help unify the right. I'm thinking entertainment value here. And spite. ;D