Richard Rosenfeld revisits legacy of 1994 crime bill in new report for Council on Criminal Justice

by | Sep 20, 2019

The Curators' Distinguished Professor Emeritus wrote the overview leading off a series of papers looking at the impact of the legislation 25 years after it became law.
Richard Rosenfeld

Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard Rosenfeld authored a paper exploring the legacy of the 1994 Crime Bill 25 years after it became law for the Council on Criminal Justice. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known simply as The Crime Bill, has been making cameo appearances in the Democratic presidential primary race since the spring with presidential hopefuls Cory Booker and Joe Biden sparring over Biden’s support of the legislation.

“There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Booker said while challenging Biden on stage during a debate in July.

Subsequent news coverage pointed even more directly than Booker to that omnibus bill, which Biden helped write. A story stated that “experts now see [it] as one of the major contributors to mass incarceration in the 1990s.”

But Richard Rosenfeld, Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, came away with a more nuanced view when he went back and read the legislation – more than 300 pages – for a new report he was asked to write for the Council on Criminal Justice.

“It’s not very surprising given the massive size, detail and the scope of all 33 titles of that bill, any one of which could have stood as a single piece of legislation,” Rosenfeld said. “You’ve got this huge omnibus package, and it attempts to address a lot of different issues. They’re concerned about rising crime and a punitive response. But there is a strong dose of concern with violence against women, a strong dose of concern about the rehabilitative prospects of younger offenders. It does sort of capture nearly all of the prevailing views of criminal justice back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

Rosenfeld’s report, titled “Overviews and Reflections,” was intended to lead off of a series of academic papers planned on “The 1994 Crime Bill: Legacy and Lessons.” It was published last week just ahead of the 25th anniversary of President Bill Clinton signing it into law.

A companion paper by criminologists William J. Sabol and Thaddeus L. Johnson looks more closely at the bill’s impact on prison populations.

“A selective reading of the legislation has resulted in these claims that the bill contributed to mass incarceration when, in fact, there is little evidence that it did,” Rosenfeld said.

He notes that the law only directly applied to the federal prison system, while much of the explosion in prison populations occurred at the state level. What’s more, much of that growth occurred before the bill was signed, and the rate of growth actually decreased after the bill had been enacted.

But Rosenfeld leaves much of those details to Sabol and Johnson to explore. His own work aims to provide context to when the law was signed and touches on other aspects of its legacy.

He noted that the bill provided grants to incentivize states to adopt truth-in-sentencing requirements intended to curb the use of parole. But most had already done so before the bill was passed.

Rosenfeld, in his paper, credits the bill for strengthening the view of the federal role in criminal justice as “a convener, a clearinghouse of information about state and local authorities and interest groups.”

He also provides an appendix, which covers specific provisions of the bill related to public safety and policing, prisons, crime prevention, violence against women, drug courts, the death penalty, mandatory life imprisonment for certain felons and a ban on semiautomatic weapons. It also notes that it permitted juveniles aged 13 and older to be prosecuted as adults for violent offenses, required people convicted of crimes against minors or crimes of sexual violence to register with designated state law enforcement authorities and gave victims of violent crime or sexual abuse the right to speak at an offender’s sentencing or parole hearing.

One overlooked legacy of the Crime Bill of particular import to Rosenfeld and his colleagues is the impact it has had in criminal justice research.

“The bill resulted in record levels of spending,” Rosenfeld said. “Much of that went to the National Institute of Justice, which is the research arm of the U.S. Justice Department.”

Before the bill’s passage, and even in the years immediately after it was signed, criminal justice practice and policy was based largely on anecdotal evidence and people’s instincts, but the investment in research has led to more evidence-based approaches. Those are integral in some of the reform efforts being promoted today.

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