- - Monday, July 29, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In his roughly 700 years in Washington, former Vice President Joe Biden has had one bona fide achievement that he should be proud of: The 1994 crime bill that he co-authored. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act came at a time when the United States was reeling from decades of high crime rates — major American cities, including Washington, D.C., were rife with open-air drug markets and the violence that came with them.

In response, the bipartisan bill — signed by President Bill Clinton — put 100,000 extra police on the streets, and increased funding for both prisons and crime prevention programs. The use of the death penalty for federal offenses was also greatly expanded and so-called “three strikes laws,” which beefed up sentences for repeat offenders, were also imposed. Large bipartisan majorities voted for the bill, including socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was then serving in the United States House.

This crime bill was a good thing and the salutary results of the law have been plain to see. Violent crime rates plummeted throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. According to FBI data, violent crime fell 49 percent between 1993 and 2017. Property crime fell by roughly the same rate over the identical period. Those are astonishing, hard-won declines.

Former shooting galleries like H Street in Northeast Washington, D.C., and large swaths of Harlem, New York, now house hip restaurants and trendy bars. Some continue to still struggle with violent crime — Baltimore, Maryland, is one, as the president pointed out over the weekend in characteristically caustic tones — but nationwide, the trend is clear: Crime has fallen markedly since the passage of Mr. Biden’s crime bill. Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but it would be difficult to argue that the 1994 crime bill had nothing to do with that.

Yet, as the Democrats sprint leftward, they are increasingly decrying their own support for tough-on-crime policies. Mr. Sanders has said outright he regrets voting for the crime bill. “I’m not happy I voted for” what he now calls a “terrible bill,” the senator said on television over the weekend. And even Joe Biden — who, again authored the bill — is now singing a different tune. He now says he wants to reverse key provisions of the 1994 law, such as tough mandatory-minimum sentences.



Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker, who as mayor of hardscrabble Newark, New Jersey, was tough on crime, now professes to oppose such measures now, too. He has blasted Vice President Biden’s record on crime, saying “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it. The 1994 crime bill accelerated mass incarceration and inflicted immeasurable harm on black, brown and low-income communities.” This gets it precisely wrong: So-called “black, brown and low-income communities” actually gained the most from the crime bill, because it is precisely people living in those neighborhoods who are most likely to become victims of crime. Keeping criminals in jail for longer periods has saved untold thousands of lives from those communities — especially considering that the lion’s share of inmates are guilty of serious violent offenses.

A recent City Journal essay by criminal justice scholar Rafael A. Mangual made the point well. “Those incarcerated primarily for drug offenses constitute less than 15 percent of state prisoners. Four times as many state inmates are behind bars for one of five very serious crimes: murder (14.2 percent), rape or sexual assault (12.8 percent), robbery (13.1 percent), aggravated or simple assault (10.5 percent), and burglary (9.4 percent),” Mr. Mangual wrote. Moreover, “Not only are most prisoners doing time for serious, often violent, offenses; they’ve usually received (and blown) the second chance that so many reformers say they deserve. Justice Department studies from 2000 through 2009 reveal that only about 40 percent of state felony convictions result in a prison sentence. A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study of violent felons convicted over a 12-year period in America’s 75 largest counties shows that 56 percent of the offenders had a prior conviction record.”

These people belong in prison. Joe Biden’s crime bill put them there. That’s something to celebrate, not run from.

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