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The 1994 Crime Bill: Legacy and Lessons Learned

On September 13, the Crime Bill turns 25.  After a quarter century, it’s as controversial as ever—and as important to understand.

What did the Crime Bill actually do? What does the research say about the impact it had on crime and justice? What lessons does it offer policymakers today?

To help answer these critical questions, the Council commissioned analyses from some of the nation’s most respected crime experts.  Papers examining the major provisions of the bill will be released over the coming months.


Overview and Reflections - Richard Rosenfeld Sept 12, 2019

Part One: Impacts on Prison Populations - William Sabol Sept 12, 2019

More installments coming soon




The Council seeks to provide a center of gravity for the criminal justice field – a forum for honest discourse among leaders with varied perspectives, ideologies, and expertise. In that spirit, we solicited short reactions to the first papers from Council leaders.  Their perspectives offer a range of views of how we can apply knowledge from the past to inform the path ahead.


Laurie O. Robinson
Former Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs
Chair, Council on Criminal Justice Board of Directors

Back in the ‘90s as Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department I traveled the country to talk with state and local practitioners receiving Crime Bill funds. I visited drug courts and jurisdictions implementing Violence Against Women programs, and I was struck by how these grants were changing the way the criminal justice system was doing business and changing the system’s culture. 

There are lessons we can draw from the Crime Bill years: First, it’s essential to rely on data and science, not rhetoric -- though that’s not always easy. Second, we need to recognize the limits of what the federal government can do, wisely use the levers the feds do have (e.g., funding), and look to states and localities for their success stories.  Third, we should invest in federal technical assistance, training and “translation.” Some of the best spent dollars I saw at DOJ were expended on peer-to-peer technical assistance. And federal support to translate new research for frontline practitioners should be a priority. Finally, we need to think about unintended consequences by critically assessing down-the-road system and social costs.


Mark Holden
Senior Vice President, Koch Industries, Inc. and Board Member, Americans For Prosperity
Co-Chair, Council on Criminal Justice Board of Trustees

Both political parties reacted to the drug epidemic by passing “tough on crime” crime bills in the 1980s and ‘90s. This resulted in skyrocketing federal and state prison populations. We learned what does not improve safety and second chances thanks to the federal crime bills. In my opinion, arguing today about which of those anti-crime approaches were more ineffective or led to more mass incarceration is useless. We must move forward.

In fact, states have led forward, starting with Texas in 2005. States have implemented evidence-based reforms over the past decade and a half – commonsense reforms that enhance public safety, keep families together, provide healing for survivors, and divert much needed resources to education, infrastructure, and mental health programs.

As Maya Angelou said, “when we knew better, we did better.” I am confident that positive reforms will continue because we know better and are doing better for all of society. We can’t stop now. As I like to say, ‘Man should never place a period, where God has placed a comma.”


Louis Reed
National Organizer, #Cut50
Member, Council on Criminal Justice Board of Trustees

As a formerly incarcerated individual, my perspective on criminality and punishment have a long-standing relationship. When the Crime Bill was enacted and thousands of individuals throughout the country became criminalized, there was a wave of fear that anyone could be next. Studies have shown that labeling someone as a violent offender, increasing penalties and adding “tough-on-crime” policies don’t make communities safer. Smart policing, fair chances and meaningful resources reduce crime and increase public safety.

As National Organizer of #cut50, I’ve witnessed communities have important dialogues on reform. Their solutions are simple: end the criminalization of communities of color, invest in socioeconomic resources for low-income individuals and find pathways to encourage leadership and workforce development.

It’s the responsibility of lawmakers to come up with solutions that end the epidemic of mass incarceration, rather than support of policies that increase prison construction and expansion.

For media inquiries related to our Crime Bill analysis, please contact Jenifer Warren.