Be mindful of demands to politicians and always seek scholars when venturing into major policy changes.
More than twenty years ago, moments before President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Mr. Al Gore, his Vice President, gave special recognition to then Senator Joe Biden, who, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “fought tirelessly” for six years to get the bill, which Mr. Clinton now admits made mass incarceration worse, passed and ready for the president’s John Hancock.
It was, at that time, a big day, and the signing of the crime bill was a big deal.
In the present day, however, looking back on the impact the crime bill had on America, Mr. Clinton, who spoke in Philadelphia yesterday at the closing of the NAACP national convention, is suggesting with regret that the early 90s legislation was indeed the opposite of the bill’s marketing, which was the “toughest and smartest crime bill in our history.”
“It was actually dumb,” remarked Mr. Juwan Z. Bennett, 22, an award-winning criminologist at Temple University and a member of Techbook Online’s Board of Leaders and Doers. “It was an emotional law… It was just politicians giving the people what they wanted.”
Though born a year prior to the signing of the bill, Mr. Bennett is spot on with his assessment.
In addition to Mr. Gore admitting that Americans expressed the sentiment of not wanting habitually violent criminals on the street and “President Clinton heard you and now there’s three strikes,” the leader of the free world himself acknowledged it was a father’s emotional plea of “wanting to be free” in his dangerous neighborhood that fueled the push to materialize the legislation, which also added 100,000 more police officers to at-risk communities.
“The crack epidemic scared everybody,” said Mr. Bennett, who co-stars with me in Research & Report, a news segment that analyzes criminal justice news through the lens of academia and thought-leadership. “People, especially politicians, just wanted criminals and drug users off the street. Our criminal justice system… the prisons went from rehabilitation to crime management, and the politicians didn’t want to hear about rehabilitation.”
A lengthy New York Times article today profiled two former prisoners who now pick up lifers whose sentences have been commuted after California in 2012 voted to overhaul its three strikes law.
In California, the article notes, life sentences were imposed for almost any crime if the offender had two previous ‘‘serious’’ or ‘‘violent’’ convictions, and “serious” or “violent” in California meant anything from stealing socks or bikes.
As the current President alluded to when he, too, spoke in Philadelphia this week about criminal justice reform, the system as it stands is not fair, and the “tough on crime” stance is actually running lives and families, not saving them.
Mr. Bennett and others have tried to educate policy makers on the fact that sentence length does little to nothing to modify a person’s behavior. But, “The role of a criminologist is to advance the field of criminology, not influence policy,” said Mr. Bennett.
There isn’t currently an incentive structure for scholars to influence, or advocate for, public policy, as most individuals, said Mr. Bennett, who populate the Ivory Tower are occupied with getting published in journals.
But it’s the scholars who have the “hard truths and evidence based theories” that could’ve prevented the acceleration and the incubation of mass incarceration. Mr. Obama, during his speech to the NAACP, denounced mass incarceration and said there’s bipartisan support in Washington to reverse it, to a degree.
But even with that glimmer of hope, I’m still a bit cynical of Washington, as the current Vice President was a Senator who served as a cheerleader for the crime bill, and Mrs. Hilary Clinton was the wife to the President who said he sought the highest office in the land in a large part to materialize the crime bill.
And Mrs. Clinton, who has a good shot of winning the Democrat nomination for the President of United States, was in strong support of the crime bill at the time, too.
“Holding these politicians accountable will be quite difficult,” said Mr. Bennett, who reiterated that they were just giving the people what they wanted.
He said moving forward, now that we have the immediate past as a teacher, we, as Americans, need to be mindful of our demands of politicians and to consider always consulting scholars and social scientist before drafting major, life altering policy, like the failed 1994 crime bill.
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Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™