Black Lives Matter Should Not Blame Clinton For Mass Incarcerations

Former President Bill Clinton got into a heated exchange with a Black Lives Matter protester on Thursday, sparring with critics of 90s-era Clinton administration legislation that some view has decimated the black community. He was on the campaign trail in Philadelphia when he got into a headed exchange with the protesters.

One protester held up a sign that read, “Hillary is a murderer,” according to MSN. Another protester shouted that Hillary should be charged with “crimes against humanity.”

The protesters were taking Clinton to task for a bit of 1994 legislation, the Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act (sometimes referred to as the “crime bill”), that, by some estimates, has had devastating effects on the black community.

For the record Sen. Bernie Sanders supported the bill in 1994 and in his 2006 he used that support to prove to the voters of Vermont that he was tough on crime. 

Sanders and Black Lives Matters supporters blame former President Clinton for using the term  “superpredator.” Again for the record the term came to define the juvenile crime, some social scientists warned the violence would only get worse. So, in 1995, John DiIulio, Jr., then a Princeton professor, coined a phrase that seemed to sum up the nation’s fear of teen violence: “superpredator.”

So the word  “superpredator,” came from academics, and criminal violence experts. They were experts that made the term non only acceptable but defined the problems of the day. The irony was that these highly regarded experts were wrong, but the bell had been rung and there was no going back.

But history showed that back in the early to middle 1990s, violent crime was surging nationwide, particular in black, inner-cities communities, largely due to the ongoing crack epidemic. In response, Republican legislators crafted the bill, with provisions including mandatory lengthy sentences for certain crimes. Those sentencing requirements are considered at least partially responsible for the mass incarceration epidemic today, an epidemic that disproportionately affects blacks.

Then according to Christian Science Monitor writer Peter Grier — a sharp contrast to the divisive and uncompromising atmosphere that dominates Washington politics today.

bill clinton  2

Clinton said it was that spirit of compromise that led him to sign the crime bill, even though it contained provisions he didn’t exactly support.

“I had an assault weapons ban in [my version of the bill]. I had money for inner-city kids, for out of school activities, we had 110,000 police officers so we could put people on the street, not in these military vehicles, and the police would look like the people they were policing.”

However, Republicans at the time demanded that Clinton include harsher sentencing guidelines in the bill as a compromise to keep the assault weapons ban.

(Read: The Clinton-backed 1994 crime law had many flaws. But it didn’t create mass incarceration.)

Journalist Kevin Drum noted in a blog post at Mother Jones, the 1994 law simply didn’t have that much of an effect on prisons and jails: The black incarceration rate in particular continued a decade-plus-long climb after the law, but began a steady decline soon after.

1994 chart

The law’s effect was small for one simple reason: States preside over the great bulk of the US justice system. So it’s actually state policies that fueled mass incarceration — to the point that one could entirely exclude the federal prison system and America would still be the world’s leader in incarceration.

This context is important not only because it demonstrates that the criminal justice policies Clinton supported weren’t that significant to mass incarceration, but also because it helps show (as I’ll get to later) that the Clinton White House and federal government were following a much broader tough-on-crime movement at a time when crime was historically high.

What is all too often missed when talking about the law was that at the time 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

On one level, there was grassroots mobilization of the community, particularly by black pastors. There was a group of influential black pastors who signed a letter encouraging the Congressional Black Caucus to support the bill. And then later, on top of that, black elected officials, who portrayed themselves at various points as uncomfortable with some of these laws, went along anyway because of pressure coming from their communities, and because they also realized the problem was so bad.

While many black leaders didn’t agree with everything in the bill at first but made peace with it despite their misgivings. There’s an interesting quote from the letter those pastors wrote to the Congressional Black Caucus: “While we do not agree with every provision in the crime bill, we do believe and emphatically support the bill’s goal to save our communities, and most importantly, our children.”

A group of 10 black city mayors also supported the bill. So while there was some opposition in the black community, there was also significant support. Many of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus did try to get rid of some of the more punitive elements in the bill, but in the end they decided to go with the president and support the final bill.

There is no doubt that the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act was far from a great piece of legislation but it is unfair to make it the center peace of what cause mass incarceration in this country. The Clinton’s clearly understand that the 1994 Crime Bill did not do what it was meant to do. But clearly for Sanders and other to blame them for the mass incarceration alone is clearly unfair and unfounded.

Jim Williams is the Washington Bureau Chief, Digital Director as well as the Director of Special Projects for Genesis Communications. He is starting his third year as part of the team. This is Williams 40th year in the media business, and in that time he has served in a number of capacities. He is a seven time Emmy Award winning television producer, director, writer and executive. He has developed four regional sports networks, directed over 2,000 live sporting events including basketball, football, baseball hockey, soccer and even polo to name a few sports. Major events include three Olympic Games, two World Cups, two World Series, six NBA Playoffs, four Stanley Cup Playoffs, four NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship Tournaments (March Madness), two Super Bowl and over a dozen college bowl games. On the entertainment side Williams was involved s and directed over 500 concerts for Showtime, Pay Per View and MTV Networks.