• Vera Institute of Justice -
    Vera Institute of Justice

n September 13, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the largest piece of criminal justice legislation in U.S. history—the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, commonly known as the Crime Bill. It was, in part, a response to public anxiety about crime. It was riding the crest of a national tide. Crime was still near its peak, people were made to fear super predators, and states were reflexively adopting tough-on-crime legislation at a rapid pace. As President Clinton said at the time, “My fellow Americans, this is about freedom. Without responsibility, without order, without lawfulness, there is no freedom.”

Twenty years later, crime and specifically violent crime are down significantly. Domestic violence survivors have greater protections and community policing practices have been more broadly adopted. At the same time, major elements of the act—especially harsher sentencing requirements and incentives for states to adopt tough-on-crime laws—accelerated over-incarceration, growth of spending on prisons, and harm to communities, particularly to poor communities of color. Our federal prison population has more than doubled in the past 20 years.

Signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 | Courtesy: The William J. Clinton Presidential Library

“My fellow Americans, this is about freedom. Without responsibility, without order, without lawfulness, there is no freedom.”
Bill Clinton

Today, there is bipartisan recognition at both the state and federal level that our over-reliance on incarceration is in need of recalibration. The imperative to maintain low crime rates without imposing unnecessary burdens on communities or taxpayers is pronounced. At least 29 states have taken steps to roll back mandatory sentences, with 32 bills passed in just the last five years. And at the federal level, with broad bipartisan support, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which eased the disparity in penalties for drug offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine.

Congress is currently considering additional measures, including the Justice Safety Valve Act, the Smarter Sentencing Act, reauthorization of the Second Chance Act, and the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. Also, the House Judiciary Committee reauthorized the bipartisan Over-criminalization Task Force; and the United States Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan independent agency in the judicial branch of government, unanimously voted this year to amend and apply retroactively a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders.

Now is the time to reflect on the impact of this landmark legislation both to answer questions about its legacy and to inform the future of our nation’s criminal justice policy and practices. To initiate this critical conversation, we called upon the architects of the bill, its executors, and current leaders and thinkers to discuss the bill’s intentions and impact—and what these might mean for the next twenty years. Their voices can be found in an ongoing dialogue here on this multimedia platform. Tune in.