Clinton, Crime, and the Justice Department

Article excerpt

Ideological Confusion?

In his influential book on criminal justice policy, Samuel Walker (1994:21) argues that crime policy in the 1990s is characterized by ideological confusion, with some liberals and conservatives crossing over on certain issues, such as drug legalization and the death penalty. One implication of this observation is that the old conservative-liberal dichotomy may not be as useful as it once was as today's intellectuals and policymakers depart from their ideological positions of a generation ago.

Although this may be true, what is even more striking about the crime policy debate of the 1990s is that it has considerably narrowed in terms of the range of policy options on the table for discussion. Liberals of the 1960s often called for an examination of the root causes of crime, the rehabilitation of offenders, and for procedural safeguards in the administration of justice. Conservatives of that period, like today, emphasized punishment and crime control in their crime agenda. These poles (crime prevention venus punishment and due process versus crime control) of the traditional liberal-conservative dialogue have largely disappeared, as measures emphasizing punishment far overshadow any consideration of crime prevention.

Instead, the major policy debate in the 1990s, at least in the congressional arena and in the media, centers on the punishment/crime control end of the continuum. Both conservatives and liberals attempt to outdo each other in their posturing and proposals to be increasingly punitive toward criminals.

Insofar as this analysis is concerned with criminal justice policy in the Clinton era and how it departs from, or simply extends, the policies of the Reagan-Bush years, the focus will be on the congressional crime debate of 1993 and 1994, which spanned the first year and one-half of President Bill Clinton's first term in office. During that period both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House passed their own versions of a crime bill (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act): the Senate bill passed on November 19, 1993, and the House bill on April 21, 1994. The two versions were sent to a joint committee of the Senate and the House to iron out their differences. After much partisan wrangling, a $30 billion crime bill finally passed both legislative chambers in August (Wines, 1994a: A1; Clymer, 1994).

The Congressional Crime Debate of 1993-1994

The narrowing of the ideological spectrum was clearly in evidence in the congressional crime debate of 1993-1994. The crime bills of both the House and Senate expanded the federal death penalty by more than 50 additional offenses. In its first day of deliberations, the House passed 47 amendments in one vote with little debate; many of those provisions related to extending capital punishment. One of the more contentious issues related to how difficult to make the appeal process for death-row inmates, including whether statistical evidence of racial bias could be used in such appeals (Seelye, 1994a: A23; Wines, 1994b: A13). In the House, gun-control legislation to ban certain types of assault weapons was an especially divisive issue, which finally passed in a separate bill by two votes (Seelye, 1994b: A1).

Moreover, the slogan that captured much of the public discourse on crime in the first months of 1994 was a baseball metaphor, "three strikes and you're out." The basic idea behind this measure was to have mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenders convicted of three violent crimes. This proposal quickly gained widespread popularity with conservatives and liberals, including President Clinton, endorsing some version of the idea.(1) The major issue in this measure was which offenses to count as violent crimes toward the "three strikes" and some questioned whether "three strikes" were too many. Both the Senate and House crime bills contained provisions for mandatory life sentences for three-time violent offenders (which included drug offenders). …