By Carrie Johnson

September 12, 2014

Twenty years ago this week, in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed a crime bill. It was, in effect, a long-term experiment in various ways to fight crime.

The measure paid to put more cops on the beat, trained police and lawyers to investigate domestic violence, imposed tougher prison sentences and provided money for extra prisons.

Clinton described his motivation to pass the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act in stark terms.

“Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools,” he said. “Every day, we read about somebody else who has literally gotten away with murder.”

And if Clinton and Congress reflected the punitive mindset of the American people, what they didn’t know was that soaring murder rates and violent crime had already begun what would become a long downward turn, according to criminologists and policymakers.

Nicholas Turner is president of the Vera Institute, a nonprofit that researches crime policy. Turner took a minute this week to consider the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1990s.

“Criminal justice policy was very much driven by public sentiment and a political instinct to appeal to the more negative punitive elements of public sentiment rather than to be driven by the facts,” he said.

And that public sentiment called for filling up the nation’s prisons, a key part of the 1994 crime bill.

These days, Jeremy Travis is president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But 20 years ago, he attended the signing ceremony for the crime bill — and joined the Clinton Justice Department.

“Here’s the federal government coming in and saying we’ll give you money if you punish people more severely, and 28 states and the District of Columbia followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses,” Travis says.

But as Travis now knows all too well, there’s a problem with that idea. Researchers including a National Academy of Sciences panel he led have since found only a modest relationship between incarceration and lower crime rates.

“We now know with the fullness of time that we made some terrible mistakes,” Travis said. “And those mistakes were to ramp up the use of prison. And that big mistake is the one that we now, 20 years later, come to grips with. We have to look in the mirror and say, ‘look what we have done.'”

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