By Brett Gillin
In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed a bill into law that put 100,000 new police officers on the streets, banned certain types of assault weapons, and made prison sentences for violent criminals much tougher. Now, more than 20 years after signing the bill into law, former President Clinton thinks that the law was not only a mistake, but made things worse in the long run.
In the early 90’s, law enforcement officers were faced with a surging crime rate and ever-growing gang activities throughout the country. Media reports were loaded with stories of drive-by shootings, many including children being killed. In response to what many saw as laws that were too weak, the Clinton administration and Joe Biden spearheaded a sweeping reform of federal sentencing guidelines.
Perhaps the most famous of the new reforms was the “three strikes rule,” which mandated a life sentence for people convicted of violent felonies or drug trafficking crimes after two previous felony convictions. The bill also allowed for children as young as 13 to be tried as adults, banned several assault weapons, and provided funding to put 100,000 additional police officers on the streets.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it,” Clinton told a crowd gathered at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, according to BBC News. Clinton went on to explain that he signed the bill into law because of the soaring crime rates and increased gang activities throughout the United States.
“We had gang warfare on the streets. We had little children being shot dead on the streets who were just innocent bystanders standing in the wrong place,” Clinton explained according to CNN. Despite the fact that after the bill was signed, the United States saw the biggest drop in crime in the history of the country, Clinton felt that the law simply went too far and locked up the wrong people for too long.
“We wound up putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives,” Clinton told CNN in an interview earlier this year.
Clinton’s comments come on the heels of President Barack Obama’s statement that mass incarceration is making our country worse off and his commuting of 46 drug offenders’ sentences. Clinton’s comments also come at a time that his wife, presidential-hopeful Hillary Clinton, is calling for an end to the “era of mass incarceration.”
One thing that hasn’t been addressed by these politicians, at least publicly, is how the repeal of the “three strikes” laws or softening on prison sentencing guidelines might hinder law enforcement officers’ abilities to do their jobs. The specter of someone getting their “third strike” is often cited, in studies such as this one, as being a major factor in the decrease in crime. Even an FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin spoke of the major deterrent effect of these laws, citing a 26.9% drop in crime in California alone in the first five years of enforcement. Without these laws in place, would our law enforcement officers be at even more risk of violence?