Crime or Punishment: How a 1990s Hysteria Forced A Difficult Choice on the Clinton White House
There's something wrong with the title of this article.
If you're currently thinking that exact thought, you're not alone. In fact, it's safe to say you'd be among the vast majority of folks who would be thinking the exact same thing. It's not simply that all of us are familiar with the famous Dostoyevsky novel Crime and Punishment, but rather we all possess an inherent understanding that the two concepts go hand in hand. There is a crime and as a result there is a punishment. We trace this notion back to biblical times starting with the "eye for an eye" mentality, soon to be followed by Hammurabi's Code, the first set of laws that codified this belief system in action. Today, it's pretty much a given that should somebody commit a crime, there will be some form of punishment for that crime. It's the basis for our own criminal justice system as well as the five Law and Order series that have graced our cable airwaves over the past two decades. As the saying from the theme song to the 1970s TV series Baretta says, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time."
However, the notion of receiving a punishment for a crime is not as simple as it sounds. Our criminal justice system is large, complex, and rife with inconsistencies. Private prisons are a multi-million dollar industry creating a business model where the more people locked up, the more financially successful the industry becomes. There are different sentences for using different versions of the same drug, something that disproportionately affects people of color. Even when there are no obvious perpetrators, certain police departments maintain a quota system, forcing officers to issue citations for relatively minor offenses. Add all this to the fact that American police departments are becoming more and more militarized as well as a string of killings of innocent African-Americans, including children, and it should be no surprise that we currently have the lowest level of police trust in twenty-two years.
But all of this didn't simply happen overnight.
And to understand how all of this happened, we need to look back to an earlier time where police trust had also become eroded: 1993. It was a period where the public had a lack of confidence in our men and women in uniform, due to it being the same time when four White Los Angeles policemen were being tried in federal court for the 1991 beating of Rodney King. This event, and more specifically the L.A. riots that followed the acquittal of the four policemen in late April of 1992, was indeed troubling but it was only the first of a series of violent acts that made national news. In late February of 1993, the nation was paralyzed as it witnessed the siege of Waco and the Branch Davidian cult where we saw the loss of 80 lives in a horrific standoff. Later, on July 1 of that year, a crazed gunman killed eight people in a law office in San Francisco in what came to be known as the 101 California Shooting, named after the street where the mass murder took place. It just over 16 months, it appeared that America was going to hell in a handbasket.
Something had to be done.
So the Clinton administration acted. In 1994 then Senator Joe Biden of Delaware helped to write a 356-page bill called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, later to be called the Crime Bill. Among the highlights were funding for 100,000 new police officers, $9.7 billion in funding for prisons, and $6.1 billion in funding for prevention programs. There was also a federal assault weapons ban, an expanded federal death penalty, new statutes for immigration law, hate crimes, sex crimes, and gang-related crimes, and even the authority to create a registry for sex offenders. It was the largest crime bill ever written up to that point and it initially seemed as if it would address the nationwide concern over what Americans were seeing as increased violence in their everyday lives. In fact, the Crime Bill even had the support of African-American leaders in Congress, many of whom admitted the bill was imperfect, but knew that something had to be done to protect their communities. In describing his motivation behind signing the bill, President Clinton said, "Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools...Every day, we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder."
It was that choice that Clinton had to make: do nothing and continue to be blamed for violent crime or attempt to do something to address the problem. And the problem was more than just a handful of isolated incidents. At the time there was a growing consensus among social scientists that the rapidly rising rate of juvenile crime would only get worse, especially among young men of color. In fact in 1995, a renowned social science professor from Princeton named John Dilulio coined a phrase for this new wave of impending criminals: superpredators. Dilulio introduced this phrase in an article for The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative magazine that had been recently founded by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes. The article painted a dire portrait of what would happen, should there be no action taken. In fact, Dilulio even wrote:
Dilulio goes on to predict that by 2010 there would be "an estimated 270,000 more young predators on the streets than in 1990." Despite Dilulio being the first documented person to use the term "superpredators," his fear quickly spread. In fact, renowned criminologist James Fox also expressed concern over this growing threat and even went so far as to say, "Unless we act today, we're going to have a bloodbath when these kids grow up." This view became so prevalent that it even made its way to the White House with then First Lady Hillary Clinton. In a speech in Keene, New Hampshire a mere two months after the Dilulio piece was published, Clinton mentioned the phrase "superpredators" for the one and only time in reference to the term describing gang members who would take advantage of young women. Clinton's concern did not echo Dilulio's thesis that all these young men would take over, but rather that certain young men would end up in dangerous gangs and then would act out in an effort to adopt the gang lifestyle. By this point, the hysteria over "superpredators" was very real.
Unfortunately, history has shown us that hysteria can often lead to unpleasant situations. Ask the women accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s. Or citizens of Japanese descent on the west coast in the 1940s. Or the alleged communists who worked in Hollywood in the 1950s. Each of these historic times faced a crisis and an immediate need to act to restore the public's trust and peace of mind. The mid-1990s followed in that mold. What made it different this time was the fact that we were in the age of cable news. CNN had become popular due to its coverage of the First Gulf War. Ratings were driven by highlighting stories of violence and death. Wayne LaPierre even wrote a book about how fortunate L.A. citizens were to be armed during the riots. People at home were genuinely concerned for their safety and that of their young ones. And when all this happens, the president has no choice but to act.
Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have been criticized for their work on the 1994 Crime Bill. Bernie Sanders has been critical of the bill even though he voted in favor of it. Despite having apologized for her singular use of the phrase "superpredators," Hillary Clinton is still being blamed for having used the phrase by people like Ben Jealous as well as Black Lives Matter protesters at her husband's recent campaign stop in Philadelphia. These most recent protests seem odd given that President Clinton himself apologized for the bill just over 10 months ago in the very same city of Philadelphia. Clinton went so far to say at the time:
Even Dilulio and Fox admitted their dire predictions turned out to have been gross exaggerations. In 2012, they were among a group of criminologists who submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case of Miller v. Alabama, a case that sought to ban mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. That brief stated that "the superpredator myth contributed to the dismantling of transfer restrictions, the lowering of the minimum age for adult prosecution of children, and it threw thousands of children into an ill-suited and excessive punishment regime." The Supreme Court eventually agreed with the criminologists and ended up striking down the sentences. The full blown wave of "superpredators" never came to fruition and the theory is now regarded as junk science among an overwhelming majority of those in political circles.
But what the Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia are too young to realize is the culture surrounding the 1994 Crime Bill was so prevalent, so pervasive, that President Bill Clinton had no choice but to act. Inaction was not never an option, not when the public's health and safety was involved. The only option then was to put forth legislation based on both public sentiment and social science at the time in an effort to stem the violence seen on our city streets. As history has shown us, it is always preferential to have both crime and punishment. But President Bill Clinton ended up facing an impossible situation: If he chose not to act there would be crime all over our city streets. If he chose to act, he and his administration might very well be punished politically for the effects of their decision down the road. And so for the Clinton White House it came down to one huge choice: Crime or punishment.
They chose to address the crime and are still feeling the political punishment twenty-two years later.
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