Fear ruled the streets of Buffalo in 1994. Crack cocaine, a drug that left people buzzing and aching and desperate for more, drove the city’s crime rate to record levels.
Cities across the country suffered under the same crack-fueled crime epidemic. That’s why President Bill Clinton and Congress struck a deal on a sweeping crime bill that’s suddenly at the center of the Democratic presidential race 22 years later.
But that debate is built around two misconceptions.
Despite what some Black Lives Matter activists say, the crime bill is not a central reason why America has locked up so many of its citizens.
And despite what Bill Clinton says, the bill is not the central reason why violent crime plummeted by more than half in the past two decades.
The truth is much more complicated. And it can’t be understood without looking back at 1994 and what has and hasn’t changed since that bloody year in America’s streets.
A bloody year
Anthony M. Masiello recalls a horrific ritual he performed again and again in his first year as Buffalo’s mayor. Police would be called to one murder after another, and Masiello would rush to the killing scene and see the yellow police tape in front of the chalk-marked image of a dead body in the street.
Family members of the slain would be sitting on the curb, weeping. And Buffalo’s mayor would try to console them, all the while thinking that Buffalo’s crime wave was beyond his control.
“It was hard to take,” he recalled. “It was a sense of helplessness.”
Ninety people were murdered in the city in 1994.
Cities around the country saw their murder rates spiking in the early 1990s, too, which is why mayors traveled en masse to Washington more than once to lobby for the comprehensive crime bill that President Clinton was trying to push through Congress.
“We support the president’s call for a national crime bill,” said Sharpe James, then the mayor of Newark, N.J.
In pushing for the crime bill, the mayors – many of them black – found themselves on opposite sides from the NAACP, which decried the tougher minimum sentences and the “three strikes and you’re out” provision that promised to lock up repeat felons forever.
The bill that Clinton and Congress were negotiating was “a crime against the American people,” the NAACP said.
Many lawmakers found themselves torn, most notably members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who objected to the bill’s emphasis on tough sentences and the death penalty.
The black lawmakers briefly held up the bill, but ended up relenting, with many members voting for it in hopes of stopping an even more conservative alternative.
“What was in the making was something worse than what you have now,” Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero from Georgia, said at the time.
In the end, the bill gave people of every political persuasion something to love and something to hate. Democrats generally loved the additional funding for anti-crime programs and the inclusion of the new Violence Against Women Act, while hating the new federal funding for state prisons. Republicans pushed for that prison funding while largely objecting to the inclusion of an assault weapons ban. And virtually all lawmakers loved the fact that the bill aimed to add 100,000 police officers to America’s streets.
Meanwhile in Buffalo, a funeral director named Richard D. Meadows Jr. – who had taken to parading young people before a casket with a mirror in it in hopes of steering them away from crime – worried that the bill would end up sending too many people, and even teenagers, to prison for minor crimes.
“Everyone was complicit” in the bill’s passage, said Meadows, now an Episcopal priest in Connecticut, whose son, Courtney Meadows, was murdered in Buffalo in 2005. “The sad part is, this was the best that they could do at the time.”
Among the supporters of that crime bill were Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sanders – now a U.S. senator who is waging a spirited fight for the Democratic presidential nomination – voted for the bill while expressing mixed feelings about it.
“There are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them,” Sanders said at the time. “But it is also my view that, through the neglect of our government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime and violence.”
As for the first lady, she said something about crime in 1996 that she would come to regret 20 years later.
“They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators,’ ” said Clinton, now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. “No conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Fast-forwarding to 2016, both Sanders and Clinton say the crime bill went too far and are calling for criminal justice reform. And Clinton has apologized for using the term “super-predators.”
But an apology is not enough for those who believe – incorrectly – that the crime bill is a key reason that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
“Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history,” Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” wrote in a harsh critique of the Clintons in the progressive magazine “The Nation.”
The states’ role
But did Bill Clinton’s crime bill cause mass incarceration in America?
A close look at the data shows that it did not.
The nation’s prison population skyrocketed 250 percent between 1978 and 1995, the year the crime bill took effect, reported Kevin Drum, a blogger at the liberal magazine Mother Jones. Between 1995 and 2009, the year the nation’s prison population peaked, it grew only another 40 percent.
Former Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat and Clinton supporter who backed the crime bill, uncovered the reason behind those numbers in data he got this week from the Congressional Research Service. That data showed that there are about six times as many people in state prisons as in federal prisons.
“The prison population is what it is largely because of state law,” LaFalce noted.
Many states, including New York, toughened their drug laws as far back as the 1970s, thereby boosting the prison population long before most Americans had ever heard of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
On the federal level, prison populations began to increase after Congress enacted a law toughening sentences for the possession of crack cocaine. The sentence for possessing an ounce of crack, of which the users were mostly black, became the same as the penalty for possessing 100 ounces of white powder cocaine, which was largely used by more affluent whites. That change, which contributed to a large racial disparity in sentencing, happened in 1986, while Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas.
In the end, then, the Clinton crime bill had comparatively little impact on the rate of incarceration in America.
“Ending the U.S. experiment with mass incarceration requires us to focus on state policy because individual states are the most active incarcerating bodies in the nation,” Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative – which opposes mass incarceration – said in a 2014 report.
Did the bill work?
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Black Lives Matter activists have repeatedly pressed the Clintons about the supposed connection between the crime bill and the incarceration rate.
And last week, an activist pushed Bill Clinton to the breaking point.
“Because of that bill, we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate, and listen to this, because of that and the background check law, a 46-year low in the deaths of people of gun violence,” a visibly angry Clinton told a protester at a campaign stop in Philadelphia.
That’s the way Masiello sees it, too. He remembers that crime bill funding not only allowed Buffalo to hire dozens of community police officers, but it also brought the city money to put computers in its police cars for the first time.
But is the crime bill the main reason that crime plummeted over the next two decades?
Not according to the experts.
“Instead of a single, dominant cause, our research points to a vast web of factors, often complex, often interacting, and some unexpected,” Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center, said in a report in the Atlantic last year.
Chettiar’s research found that the introduction of CompStat – the computerization of police operations that the crime bill funded in Buffalo and elsewhere – accounted for 5 to 15 percent of the nation’s drop in crime from the mid-1990s to 2002. A growth in income accounted for another 5 to 10 percent, as did reduced alcohol consumption. As for the increased number of police on the streets thanks to the crime bill, that accounted for somewhere between zero and 10 percent in the drop in crime.
Other researchers have proposed other theories about the drop in crime.
The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that studies the justice system, estimates that increased incarceration cut crime between 10 and 20 percent.
And other researchers credit the drop in crime to everything from the growing popularity of antidepressants to the move to a society where fewer people carry cash.
In other words, the story of America’s drop in crime is much more complex than Bill Clinton indicated.
“Experts and studies haven’t reached consensus on what caused the historic drops in crime,” said PolitiFact, the political fact-checking operation. “But they do roundly agree that it can’t all be attributed to Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.”
For that reason, PolitiFact rated Clinton’s defense of his crime bill “mostly false.”
The view from Buffalo
Clinton’s crime bill did have one clear impact.
It created raw and varied emotions in the African-American community, nationwide and in Buffalo.
Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, a Black Lives Matter activist from Buffalo who supports Sanders, said she remembers more and more young African-Americans going off to prison in the late 1990s as the crime bill took effect. And she said an apology isn’t enough to exonerate Hillary Clinton for the use of the term “super-predators.”
She believes that term – and the crime bill itself – was aimed at boosting the Clintons’ political prospects.
“That bill was extremely detrimental to the black community,” said Martin-Bordeaux, also the chair of the Erie County Young Democrats. “The black community really trusted Bill Clinton and didn’t do a lot of questioning of him at the time, but it should have.”
But Sandra A. Green – who spent decades working as a corrections officer in New York State prisons and who lost two of her sons to gun violence – sees things very differently.
She said it’s wrong that some young African-Americans get sent to prison on minor charges, but others get just what they deserve.
“There are super-predators, absolutely,” said Green, adding that she supports the Black Lives Matter movement. “I’m not afraid to say that because I’ve seen them.”
More than anything else, though, Clinton’s crime bill ought to be seen as part of a much larger – and very disturbing – picture, said the Rev. James Giles, executive director of Buffalo Peacekeepers, a coalition of local violence- and gang-intervention groups.
For years, before and after the crime bill, young African-Americans got involved in crime and received disproportionate punishment, said Giles, also a supporter of Black Lives Matter.
“We can’t directly attribute mass incarceration to the crime bill,” he said. “It’s more about our racially bent system than it is about any one particular bill.”