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The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994: 25 Years Later, Where Do We Stand?

Some 25 years ago, President Bill Clinton signed into law the biggest incendiary device that lit the fire of mass incarceration: The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (VCCLEA). “Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools,” he said as he signed the bill into law before a wall of uniformed police officers.

Under the VCCLEA, the federal government coerced the states to adopt harsher sentences and require that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. States that refused to go along lost out on $12.5 billion in grants ($19 billion in today’s terms) to build new prisons and bulk up police forces. Most states jumped on board.

But states had already been hiking up their sentences because violent crime was rampant in the early 1990s. So requiring even longer sentences, especially with the 85 percent rule and abolishment of parole, meant lots more prisoners in jail for lots more time. This “Truth-In-Sentencing” scheme filled prisons to capacity, prompting the prison construction boom. Early on, a new prison was opened in the U.S. every 15 days.

The VCCLEA was late to the party, though. Violent crime peaked in this country in 1991, three years before Clinton signed VCCLEA into law. Nevertheless, federal and state law enforcement were bound to follow the new law, and they still adhere to its outdated and faulty reasoning.

The Brennan Center for Justice said in a September 2019 report that “undoing this failed system must be deliberate.” The VCCLEA fueled the mass incarceration problem we have today, and “we must confront the legacy of decades of federal funding” that created it, the center said.

It was the funding enabled by
VCCLEA that encouraged states to increase arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration, the center said. While most agree that mass incarceration should be fixed, “the federal government has never sent a clear message to states that decarceration should be a goal,” the center noted. Instead, the Act of 1994 continues to plod along.

Legislators have reintroduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, which would provide financial measures to states to decrease imprisonment, the opposite of the VCCLEA’s purpose. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has included the same plan in his criminal justice reform platform, though he was a key supporter of the VCCLEA back in the day.

For six decades, the switch from using prisons for rehabilitation to using prisons for retribution has caused an explosion of the prison population. The VCCLEA was a major force in that change. While the word “reform” is thrown around with abandonment, mass incarceration happened because of reform — namely the VCCLEA. It’s time to undo the “reforms” and dismantle the VCCLEA, the center says. 


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