’94 Crime Bill

It’s been 25 years since Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—also known as the ‘94 Crime Bill. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton and authored by now-presidential hopeful Joe Biden, it was designed to send a political message that Democrats could be just as tough on crime as their Republican counterparts. It was supposed to reduce ‘violent crime’ by imposing longer jail sentences, creating more death penalty-eligible offenses, cutting higher educational opportunities for incarcerated people, and providing billions of dollars to states to build more prisons and hire 100,000 new police officers. In short, the plan was to lock up more people, lock them up longer, and lock them up in more places.

The ‘94 Crime Bill endorsed a false view that punitive and retributive systems of policing and incarceration can advance public safety. In reality, both perpetuate racial disparities, family separation, community destabilization, voter disenfranchisement, misdirected spending of limited public resources and systemic state violence.

Read more:  The ’94 Crime Bill 25 Years Later: It’s Time for a Reckoning [Op-Ed]


The ’94 Crime Bill invested in and endorsed policing, punitive sentencing, and incarceration as the primary, if not exclusive, means to advance public safety:

  • It failed to adequately invest in public safety measures that strengthened communities, such as jobs, substance abuse treatment, mental health, youth services, support for reentering citizens, or traditional urban infrastructure.
  • It created the COPS Office, which has invested more than $14 billion in state and local law enforcement agencies since 1994, 13 including the former Cops in Schools, COPS Hiring Program, School-Based Partnerships, and Secure Our Schools Program grant programs and the current School Violence Prevention program, which provide seed money for local districts to fund school policing and surveillance infrastructure programs that have been largely responsible for driving the school-to- prison pipeline locally.
  • It included a 10-year expiration for an already limited in scope assault weapons ban, one of the few non-criminalizing public safety initiatives in the bill.
  • It placed the vast bulk of resources and funding for addressing violence against women towards deepening police involvement and criminal prosecution as the primary means to reduce domestic violence.


The ’94 Crime Bill authorized a total of $30.2 billion over six years, from 1995-2000. The bulk of these dollars were designated for law enforcement and prison infrastructure, contributing significant financial resources to overpolicing, mass incarceration, and criminalization:

  • Authorized a combined $23.1 billion for law enforcement and prison construction.
  • Authorized a total of $10.8 billion for several programs to assist state and local law enforcement. Most of the funds—$8.8 billion—was used to support hiring additional police officers.
  • Authorized $9.7 billion for states to build and operate prisons, including for the incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
  • Between 1996 and 1998, 28 states received over $680 million in Truth-in- Sentencing Incentive Grants from the federal government. By 1999, 42 states had truth-in-sentencing laws.
  • The COPS office has funneled more than $1 billion to fund the expansion of policing and surveillance infrastructure in schools.