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20 Years of Flawed Criminal Justice Policy, NCCD - Muhammad, 2014

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20 Years of Flawed Criminal Justice Policy
November 3, 2014


by David Muhammad
Twenty years ago, President Bill
Clinton signed into law the 1994
Violent Crime Control and Law
Enforcement Act (the "Crime Bill"),
which sparked a massive increase in
the rate of incarceration in America.
The Crime Bill created much longer
prison sentences and provided huge
of funding to states for law
enforcement and incarceration.

The Crime Bill provided $30.2 billion over six years for crime control and related social programs-the most
money ever allotted in a federal crime bill. It created several flawed policies that have resulted in mass
incarceration in America, destroying families and entire communities, actually contributing to higher crime and
huge financial waste.
The Crime Bill mandated that states enact longer prison sentences in order to receive some of the $9.7 billion
earmarked for prison construction. It created a '1hree strikes" law, replicated by numerous states, that required
people convicted of even minor crimes such as theft to be sent to prison for life. The legislation eliminated
most education programs in prisons by making inmates and even many parolees ineligible for Pell grants. Sex
offender registration requirements were created, even for children. The bill also expanded the use of the death
penalty and gave courts wider authority to charge and incarcerate children as adults. There are now 250,000
children each year who are prosecuted, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults in the United States.
Years of research and numerous studies now prove how detrimental these policies have been. Locking up
lower-level offenders often makes them worse and does not increase public safety. Longer sentences only
cost more money and do not improve outcomes. Education has the largest positive impact on inmates; one
recent Rand Corporation study proved that completing education programs inside prison can reduce future
recidivism by more than 40%.
Then there are the enormous racial and ethnic disparities that we often hear about but do not seem to care
about. Black men are incarcerated at a rate nearty 1O times higher than White men. Even though White and
Black people use drugs at approximately equal rates, Black people are 10.1 times more likely to be sent to
prison for drug offenses. Today, Black Americans represent 56% of those incarcerated for drug crimes, even
though they compose only 13% of the US population.
Ironically, at the end of his presidency (and now through his foundation), President Clinton worked to reverse
the errors of his "get tough on crime" administration. On his last day in office, he gave clemency to Kemba
Smith, a college student who was given a draconian prison sentence of 24 and a half years for nothing more
than being the girtfriend of a drug dealer. The so-<:alled War on Drugs and the laws enacted by the Clinton-era
Crime Bill is how Kemba became a victim and then poster child for these failed policies. She was freed by the
president after serving six and a half years in prison.
Former President Clinton joins many politicians who acknowledge that they got it wrong 20 years ago. There is
even a growing conservative movement, Right on Crime, which is working to reduce incarceration.
Even the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement official agrees that mass incarceration has been a failed
policy for America. Speaking at an American Bar Association conference in 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder
said, "Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement
reason." He went on to say that ''widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both
ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden-totaling $80 billion in 201O alone."
In recent years, states and the federal government have worked to reverse the flawed polices of the War on
Crime and the 1994 Crime Bill. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the crack/powder
cocaine sentencing disparity from a 100:1 ratio to 18:1. The act also removed the mandatory minimum five­
year sentence for possession of crack cocaine. The attorney general has also instructed federal prosecutors to
change the way they file charges in order to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences.
Several states have reduced their prison population, including California, which was forced to reduce its
number of inmates by decree of the federal court. New York, which disbanded its extremely harsh Rockefeller
Drug Laws, has seen steep declines in incarceration and its prison population is at half capacity, while the



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