“Why they have to shoot me?”
Those were the words of a teenager shot seven times by a Trenton, New Jersey police officer last year. Three officers alleged that they were responding to reports of gunfire when they saw three boys walking near the scene.
Radazz Hearns was shot “five times in the right leg, once in the left leg and has a bullet lodged in his pelvis,” according to his family attorney, as he scurried away.
“Those police were amped and they didn’t give that little boy a chance. There was no room for no chase. They just shot that little boy right there,” Rhonda Tirado, who witnessed the shooting as she sat in front of her house, told local reporters. “I don’t think those little boys had no clue what was going on. I think they was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Remarkably, the 14-year-old survived.
In recent months, much has been said about a federal crime bill enacted in 1994 and its impact on U.S. cities—and young boys like Radazz. The heat of the 2016 presidential race has fueled in a renewed focus on policing in non-white communities, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been forced to beat back criticisms that they supported legislation that led directly to the destruction of African American families, had disastrous economic consequences and led to an escalation in the criminalization of young black boys and girls.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, was supported by virtually every Democrat in Congress—including then-Representative Sanders—as the largest of its kind in history. President Bill Clinton signed it into law.
In addition to 100,000 new police officers, the measure delivered $9.7 billion in new funding for federal prisons. It also contained the much-ballyhooed federal assault weapons ban, eliminated inmate education programs, expanded the federal death penalty and codified “three strikes” sentencing mandates at the federal level. A section of the legislation targeted violence against women and created $1.6 billion in new funds for that effort.
To make it more palatable, lawmakers went about touting the virtues of “midnight basketball” to keep young black boys off the street.
Black federal lawmakers, including Rep. James Clyburn—who has endorsed Hillary Clinton—joined 22 other black Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. Whether in anticipation of redistricting, which diluted the concentration of black votes, or out of rising fears, it is worth noting that black Democrats from “safe districts,” like Rep. John Lewis, voted against the measure.
It is also worth noting that only ten percent of the nation’s prison population is in the federal system. The real and lasting effects came at the local level. Big city mayors, including New York’s Rudy Giuliani and Atlanta’s Bill Campbell were strong proponents of the bill, which also included billions in federal funds for municipal police forces to hire new cops.
And many states—which more routinely prosecute violent crime and illicit drug cases—passed their own bills, redirecting state dollars from prevention to incarceration as various forms of criminal justice legislation swept across statehouses over the early 1990s and governors across the country quickly signed draconian measures into law. State lawmakers were feeling public pressure to address violent crime and an onslaught of illegal guns. That came not only from whites, but also from the African American community—where calls to “get tough” came from the pulpits of many black churches. One of the more problematic facets of many of the era’s new laws—at both the federal and the state level—was moving more juvenile offenders into the adult system at an earlier age.
That the laws advanced unjust, racially discriminatory policies is not subject to dispute. Those “unintended consequences” shattered the very communities that they were presumably designed to help. While the debate continues over whether those laws also had a significant impact on crime statistics, a report from The Brennan Center concluded that “increased incarceration at today’s levels has a negligible crime control benefit.”
A 2014 report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project explained that incarceration has “diminishing marginal returns. In other words, incarceration becomes less effective the more it is used.”
More recently, so-called predictive policing technologies—which tend to further concentrate policing in non-white communities—has come under fire.
“Misuse and overuse of data can amplify biases,” according to the Economist, and “Predicting and forestalling crime does not solve its root causes.”
Former president Bill Clinton once appeared to apologize for his role in this. Last July, a day after President Barack Obama addressed the NAACP on this issue, Clinton defended some aspects of the 1994 crime bill, such as the gun control measures, funding for municipal police forces and after-school programs, but said sentencing mandates went too far.
“Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform,” the former president said. “But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.”
“The good news is, we had the biggest drop in crime in history,” he continued. “The bad news is we had a lot people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
What he does not appear to understand is that his federal legislation, notwithstanding its funding of more police officers, did little to staunch the tide of crime. His administration certainly had little to do with changing demographics, including an aging population and income shifts, which played a major role in the downturn. He does not appear to understand that the erosion of trust between police and the communities they serve is a key component in the police killings of black men and the civil unrest that has ensured.
It is a direct product of over-policing in non-white communities and extended prison sentences for minor, non-violent infractions advanced at the state and federal level. Police accountability took a nosedive in the wake of such “tough on crime” legislation, and trust went with it.
What he does not appear to understand is the direct linkage between destroying families and community-based institutions and the availability of less economic opportunity, not more. That young people locked up and locked out do not typically graduate from high school, let alone step foot into a college classroom. For young men, that means a greater propensity to become an absentee parent and for young women a greater likelihood of early pregnancy.
The economic consequences of that destruction is a knowable thing.
Clinton’s previous statements appeared to pave the way for a new cast of reforms presented by former First Lady Hillary Clinton in her own bid for the presidency. But, President Clinton reversed course during a town hall in in northwest Philadelphia Thursday. At a campaign event for his wife, the would-be first gentlemen took on his critics directly and seemed to double-down on the notion that his policies, including welfare reform, did more to help the black community than harm.
Specifically, he defended one of his wife’s most controversial comments during a heated exchange with protesters who openly challenged the Clinton legacy on welfare reform, mass incarceration and the phrase “superpredators,” which Hillary Clinton used to describe black children accused of violent crimes in 1996.
“I don’t know how you would describe the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out in the streets to murder other African-American children,” he said. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [Hillary] didn’t.”
“You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” in an apparent direct assault on the Black Lives Matter movement.
The broadside attack against social justice activists caught many by surprise. That the former president would use a campaign event not only to defend his complicated legacy, but also to raise the specter of black-on-black crime, was certainly troubling. Crime, as the former president should well know, is overwhelmingly intra-racial. But to assail a social justice movement, writ large, using a well-debunked racial stereotype was beyond the pale.
The term, now disavowed by the man who coined it, was not without consequences. “Once it was out there, there was no reeling it in,” University of Pennsylvania professor John Dilulio said in an interview with the New York Times.
Twenty years ago, “the ‘superpredator’ myth… led nearly every state in the country to expand laws that removed children from juvenile courts and exposed them to adult sentences, including life without parole, according to the Equal Justice Institute.
“The superpredator scare fit neatly with a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to rising crime that had taken hold even before the ‘90s,” Clyde Haberman wrote for the Times.
For her part, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly apologized for using the racially charged term and cited her criminal justice reform platform as an opportunity to turn back the tide.
“Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today,” she told the Washington Post in a statement after a February campaign event.
The Democratic frontrunner has also said that the criminal justice policies enacted by her husband’s administration had a disproportionate effect on blacks and Latinos.
But Bill Clinton seemed to balk at the body of research conducted in the intervening years that has concluded that there was little or no causal linkage between the passage of the crime bill and an actual drop in violent crime statistics.
“Because of that bill, we had a 25-year low in crime,” he asserted to a Black Lives Matter protester at the Thursday town hall.
The following day, Bill Clinton said he “almost” wanted to apologize for those comments.
“I realized I was talking past her the way she was talking past me,” Clinton said of one protester. “I know those young people yesterday were just trying to get good television and they did. But that doesn’t mean I was most effective in answering it.”
As I watched former President Bill Clinton address protesters at a town hall, I wondered what—if anything—he would have to say to Radazz and his family. He wasn’t “hopped up on crack cocaine” and hadn’t been sent out by “drug dealers” to kill anyone. Radazz has probably never heard of the 1994 crime bill or the state sponsored versions. He probably couldn’t point out the people who supported those policies in a line-up.
Radazz simply has to live with them.