This year marks the 25-year anniversary of the passage of the most sweeping crime bill in U.S. history—the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the crime bill. In many ways, this 350-page bill’s passage characterized the bipartisan tough-on-crime movement of the late 20th century. While the bill contained a handful of positive provisions such as increased accountability for law enforcement and new protections for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, it was also responsible for exacerbating racial disparities in criminal justice involvement.
As previous CAP work has pointed out, the bill contributed to ongoing rampant police misconduct and racial profiling by deploying hundreds of thousands of officers into neighborhoods of color, and it jeopardized reentry for returning people of color by eliminating their Pell Grant eligibility while in prison. The bill also expanded the use of the death penalty; imposed mandatory life sentences for individuals with three or more felony convictions; and levied harsh new penalties for justice-involved youth. Many of these harmful provisions remain in effect today and continue to target and destabilize communities of color. Here are three ways the 1994 crime bill continues to undermine the safety and well-being of communities of color:
1. Authorized the death penalty for 60 new federal offenses
Known as a “direct descendant of lynching,” the death penalty has always targeted and terrorized black and Latinx communities. The crime bill’s Federal Death Penalty Act permitted the use of the death penalty for 60 new federal offenses, including certain drug offences not related to a homicide. In the five years following the bill’s passage, 74 percent of defendants with death penalty recommendations from federal prosecutors were people of color. Notably, 44 percent were black and 21 percent were Hispanic.
Racial disparities in capital punishment persist to this day. While black and Hispanic people represent just 31 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 53 percent of death row inmates, at 41.9 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively. Furthermore, the death penalty is more likely to be recommended when the victim of the crime is white rather than black, despite the fact that black men are the most likely victims of homicide. Last year, the Trump administration called upon federal prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in cases “dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs.” If this directive survives litigation, it is expected to worsen racial disparities in the application of the death penalty, as black people are far more likely than white people to be arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated for drug crimes—even though they use and sell drugs at similar rates.
2. Imposed mandatory life sentences for individuals with three or more felony convictions
The crime bill implemented a rash of new three-strikes laws—laws that impose automatic life sentences for people convicted of certain felony offenses if they already have two convictions on their record. Dozens of states followed suit and enacted three-strikes laws, resulting in a ballooning of the incarceration rate in certain states, especially for black and Latinx Americans.
Imposing life sentences simply because an individual has a criminal record disproportionately targets people of color, who are more likely to have a record in the first place because of unequal contact with police and the justice system. Harsh collateral consequences limit employment opportunities for returning people, especially people of color, and increase the likelihood of recidivism. The crime bill’s three-strikes provision sent thousands of Americans to prison for life based on previous offenses for minor crimes such as stealing loose change from a parked car. In 2016, 78.5 percent of Americans serving life sentences in federal prison were people of color.
Some states have recognized the damage and disproportionate effect that three-strikes sentencing has on communities of color, especially black communities, and have undergone major reform efforts. In California, for instance, black people were 12 times more likely than white people to be incarcerated under three-strikes laws until the state passed the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012. This act amended the law to require one’s third strike to be a series or violent felony and allowed those currently serving three-strikes sentences to petition the courts for a reduction of their term. However, 28 states still have a three-strikes sentence on the books. In Maryland, Mississippi, and Louisiana, black people alone constitute approximately three-quarters of those sentenced to life in prison. While the federal government recently replaced its mandatory life sentence with a 25-year minimum sentence, it neglected to apply this change retroactively, meaning that hundreds of Americans will die in prison as a result of the three-strikes law.
3. Levied harsh new penalties for justice-involved youth
The crime bill also expanded the school-to-prison pipeline and increased racial disparities in juvenile justice involvement by creating draconian penalties for so-called super predators—low-income children of color, especially black children, who are convicted of multiple crimes.
Among other things, the crime bill allowed prosecutors to charge 13-year-old children as adults for certain crimes. As a result, today, two-thirds of Americans who were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles are black. Juveniles of color also constitute a majority of cases that are transferred to adult criminal court, regardless of the offense category.
Additionally, the bill included an increase in funding for school resource officers (SROs). These school-based, licensed police officers can make arrests and are sometimes armed, depending on local jurisdictions. This increase exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline for black children, as SROs are twice as likely to discipline black students compared with white students.
The bill also called for sentencing enhancements for youth who are convicted of certain offenses and believed to be associated with gangs. However, while white youth represent a significant portion of self-identified gang members, at 40 percent, law enforcement report that more than 90 percent of gang members are people of color. As a result, police and prosecutors are more likely to target people of color for suspected gang association.
The legacy of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 continues to harm communities of color. It is past time for lawmakers to dismantle these harmful policies and enact comprehensive public safety solutions that reduce reliance on incarceration, prevent unnecessary criminalization, and eliminate the draconian laws keeping millions of Americans in prison.
Ranya Shannon is an intern for Race and Ethnicity Policy at the Center for American Progress.