Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

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Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

Of all of the crime bills passed at the federal level in the history of the United States, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was arguably the most far-reaching and comprehensive. Costing $30 billion, and taking up over 1,100 pages, the Violent Crime Control Act covered a mind-boggling variety of areas, ranging from an assault-weapons ban to money for midnight basketball programs. The net result was a bill whose effects the nation was feeling ten years later—a bill whose proponents gave it credit for the sharp drop in crime throughout the 1990s, and whose critics dismissed it as an unprecedented federal boondoggle.

Background of the Violent Crime Control Act

The Violent Crime Control Act was passed amid a strong public concern about crime in the early 1990s. Polls had indicated that the American public placed crime at or near the top of the list when asked to name their civic concerns. A large rise in violent crime over a 30-year period—over 500 percent, according to one study, contributed to the public's desire to see something done about the crime rate.

Congress passed four omnibus federal crime bills between 1984 and 1990 in response to this crime wave. Nevertheless, crime continued to rise, and the public's perception was that the federal government was not doing enough to stop crime. However, conservatives and liberals disagreed on the best way to address problem of criminal violence.

Conservatives favored seeing violent criminals serve more of their sentences, and increased money for prison building. They also favored curbing the right of Habeas Corpus for death row inmates, and increasing the ability of police to process criminal suspects by reforming exclusionary rules. They also favored so-called Three Strikes Laws, requiring long prison sentences for three-time felons.

Liberals wanted to see more money directed toward social programs that would help to prevent criminal behavior. They favored increased Gun Control. They wanted to see a stop to racially discriminatory laws, and wanted to make sure that minorities were not treated unfairly by the criminal justice system.

The election of President bill clinton in 1992, which for the first time since 1980 meant that the White House and the Congress would be controlled by the same party, increased the chances of meaningful crime legislation. Clinton, who was trying to push through a health care plan that was perceived as liberal, wanted an issue where he could take a conservative approach, and anti-crime legislation seemed like a promising area. In addition, both the Congress and the White House noted the 1993 off-year elections, which many candidates won using strong anti-crime themes.The stage was set for a comprehensive anticrime bill to pass. Despite the interest of both parties in passing the legislation, it still ended up having a difficult road. Among the problems were the attempts of some liberal representatives to introduce a "Racial Justice Act" which would have allowed death row inmates, at the state and federal level, to challenge their death sentences if statistics suggested that the race of either defendants or victims had affected past death-sentencing decisions in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed. This provision was strongly opposed by Republicans and other conservative Democrats and ended up being dropped from the final bill. A proposed assault weapons ban was also controversial.

Eventually, however, both the House and the Senate were able to pass a bill, and President Clinton signed it into law on Sept. 13, 1994.

Provisions of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act provided $30.2 billion over six years for crime control and related social programs—the most money ever allotted in a federal crime bill. State and local law enforcement would receive $10.8 billion of this; $9.9 billion was earmarked for prisons, and $6.9 billion was earmarked for crime prevention.

The largest portion of this funding went to community policing. The bill created an $8.8 billion program to add 100,000 police officers nationwide for police patrols. In addition, the bill allotted $2.6 billion for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and Border Patrol. $245 million was given to rural anti-crime efforts, and $150 million to help implement new laws requiring up to a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases

The act gave $1.6 billion to fight violence against women, including money to train and add police, prosecutors and judges; money for victims' services and advocates, and money for rape-education and community-prevention programs.

Perhaps because the bill was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic president, social programs were given a big priority. These programs included $567 million for after-school, weekend, and summer "safe haven" programs for youth; $243 million for in-school programs providing positive activities and alternatives to crime and drug abuse; and $377 million to be used for anti-gang programs, midnight sports leagues, boys and girls clubs, and other projects. There was also $1 billion for drug-court programs and substance-abuse treatment for non-violent offenders.

The most controversial provision of the act was non-monetary: the assault-weapons ban. It called for a 10-year ban on the manufacture, transfer, or possession of 19 semi-automatic assault weapons. Certain kinds of revolving-cylinder shotguns, semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic pistols, and ammunition magazines were also banned. The act also outlawed the ownership of handguns by juveniles.

Less controversially, the bill established a three-strikes law that mandated life in prison for a third serious violent-felony conviction or a violent-felony conviction that follows a serious violent felony and a serious drug conviction under federal law. The crime bill also created 60 new federal crimes that call for the death penalty, including murder of federal judges; murder of federal law enforcement officers; murder of high-level members of the Executive Branch; murder of a member of Congress; Kidnapping that results in death, and fatal violence committed in international airports.

Finally, on the subject of prisons, the bill allocated $9.9 billion, including $7.9 billion to build state prisons for violent offenders, and $1.8 billion to states for jailing criminal illegal immigrants.

Effect of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

When President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control Act, he called it the "toughest and smartest crime bill in our history." The bill also came under fierce criticism, though. The left objected to the extra spending, and the left lamented the bill's failure to address racial issues and the addition of the three-strikes law.

When the Republicans won control of Congress in 1995, there were threats of wholesale revisions to the law, but these threats were never carried out, and most of the provisions of the law were able to take effect. What the bill actually accomplished was debatable, although proponents, including the president, noted the precipitous drop in violent crime throughout the 1990s, and they gave the crime bill credit for at least some of this improvement.

Further readings

Clinton, William Jefferson. 1995. "Remarks on Signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994." University of Dayton Law Review 20 (winter).

McCollum, Bill. 1995. "The Struggle for Effective Anti-Crime Legislation—An Analysis of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994." University of Dayton Law Review 20 (winter).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.