RELEASE: CAP Charts a Course for Dismantling the 1994 Crime Bill

Washington, D.C. — The Center for American Progress released an issue brief calling on national leaders to upend the infrastructure created by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the crime bill. The issue brief, “The 1994 Crime Bill Continues to Undercut Justice Reform—Here’s How to Stop It,” examines the way the 1994 crime bill is still fueling a system of mass incarceration through a vast scope of funding streams, incentives, and other mechanisms that remain largely undisturbed today. It argues that our current and future national leaders must address the foundations upholding mass incarceration before trying to move on to the next frontier on criminal justice reform.

“The 1994 crime bill, enacted 25 years ago, created an immense infrastructure that accelerated mass incarceration,” said Ed Chung, vice president of Criminal Justice Reform at CAP. “The failure to overhaul this infrastructure will continue to undermine the best-intentioned criminal justice reform measures, whether they are the first steps or the next steps.”

According to the brief, lawmakers must make the following commitments to end the legacy of the 1994 crime bill before they can expect justice reform efforts to truly take root:

  • No blank checks. Every year, states receive millions of dollars in federal public safety grants created by the 1994 crime bill with few strings attached. Most of this money is funneled directly to law enforcement agencies, with only 6 percent devoted to crime prevention in 2016. The federal government must intentionally invest in a new vision for stronger, healthier communities—which means requiring states to use the money to support efforts to shrink the footprint of the criminal justice system.
  • No easy path to new penalties. Congress must raise the bar for enacting new criminal penalties. It is too easy for lawmakers to create new criminal statutes for political gain without considering the long-term effect. In 2019 alone, legislators have introduced nearly 200 bills to add or amend federal criminal statutes. From now on, lawmakers should only consider new criminal statutes if there is clear evidence that the measure is necessary and that it would not disproportionately criminalize people of color.
  • No new jails or prisons. Congress must take action to stop the growth of incarceration, starting by ending federal funding, resources, and incentives to build new jails and prisons. The 1994 crime bill fueled the prison boom by authorizing $12 billion in grants to support prison construction at the state level, and the federal government continues to fund the expansion of jails in rural communities today. With crime near record lows in the United States,  the federal government must end incentives for jurisdictions to continue building correctional facilities.
  • No privatization. Congress must immediately end the use of private corporations in the criminal justice system. America’s two largest private prison companies amass more than $3 billion in revenue per year, roughly half of which comes from the federal government, not to mention the enlarged role of private companies in pre- and postconviction supervision. By severing the link between criminalization and profit, lawmakers can accelerate efforts to drastically reduce overall incarceration and supervision rates.

Read the issue brief: “The 1994 Crime Bill Continues to Undercut Justice Reform—Here’s How to Stop It” by Ed Chung, Betsy Pearl, and Lea Hunter

For more information or to speak to an expert, contact Julia Cusick at or 202-495-3682.