The Current Crime Debate Isn’t Doing Hillary Justice

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tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016



Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.

If I told you that Hillary Clinton wasn’t a real progressive because she supported the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the federal assault weapons ban, you’d think I was either crazy or joking. But in fact, the 1994 Crime Bill, which included both provisions, has become one of the standard anti-Hillary-Clinton soundbites used by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. (Yes, the president at the time was Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton, and a Vermont congressman named Bernie Sanders voted for the bill, but never mind. Facts have a well-known a counter-revolutionary bias.)

That bill was a mix of provisions, including, as usual, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of what seemed good at the time to progressives actually hasn’t turned out to be of much use; some of what seemed bad at the time to progressives (especially “100,000 cops”) has turned out to be hugely beneficial to poor minorities living in big cities; and much of the ugly stuff just hasn’t mattered, though the really ugly prison-building provisions mattered a lot. But you can’t make much sense of any of it without putting your mind back to the circumstances of 1994.

1994 was the fifth consecutive year in which the FBI counted more than 23,000 murders: an all-time high. Then, as now, about half of the victims were African-American. As it turned out, that was the peak. Today’s murder rate (and total violent-crime rate) is just about half of its 1994 level. From our perspective now, making crime a primary political issue looks a little bit nuts. That’s in part, of course, because the suffering of poor people and minorities continues not to count very much in the political calculus. If the homicide mortality in the white population were at the current African-American level - let alone at the 1994 African-American level - that would be considered a national crisis.

But history is made looking forward, not backward. No one knew then that we’d seen the worst. All we knew is that the number of murders had more than doubled, that the total number of violent crimes had increased six-fold in the previous thirty years, that no reversal of trend seemed to be in sight, and that the street-level arms race financed by the crack trade had expanded the age range of killers and their victims down into adolescence. If you weren’t seriously worried about crime in 1994, you just weren’t paying attention. 

The question was what to do about it, and no one had much of an answer. The Great Society era had also been the era of the first great crime explosion, and the possibly wrong but inevitable conclusions had been drawn that we didn’t know how to control crime with social welfare programs. In fact, aside from the Job Corps, none of the Great Society programs had demonstrated much in the way of crime-control benefits. The scale of the social service effort simply wasn’t in proportion to the scale of economic devastation created by de-industrialization, and “crime prevention” was not a field either bubbling with convincing new ideas or seriously devoted to the rigorous evaluation of its efforts. ...




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