The ’94 Crime Bill: Shooting Hoops in the Dark

Published August 10, 1994

The crime bill currently being debated in Congress, if passed, will go down in history as one of the most colossal failures ever to come from Capitol Hill. The bill is chock-full of political pork, repeats old mistakes, and will not prevent crime. It’s time not only for a closer look at this bill, but also a closer look at what Congress is doing in general.

The boosters of the bill claim it will put 100,000 new police officers on the street, build new prisons, and direct billions of federal dollars to “crime prevention” programs. The fact is, however, the bill has nothing to do with reducing crime and everything to do with spending money.

A closer look at the “100,000 police officers” claim, for example, reveals that the bill guarantees sufficient funding for only 20,000 permanent new police officers over the next six years–just one-fifth the number claimed by the bill’s supporters, and the equivalent of one new officer per police department. The goal of 100,000 officers will be met only if state and local governments pick up as much as $33 billion in new expenditures over the next six years. Yet another unfunded mandate.

The bill also gives Attorney General Janet Reno wide discretion over which cities and states receive the Community Policing funds. The Administration will have ample opportunity to reward its allies with these funds. Moreover, those communities Reno favors will not be required to spend all of their Community Policing funds to hire new officers. The bill says that up to 35 percent of the funds can be spent on community activities, computers, and overtime for existing officers. Worthwhile causes? Perhaps. The point is, the American public is being lied to about this bill. It is highly unlikely that the bill will put even 20,000 new police officers on the street.

In addition to the Community Policing funds, the crime bill earmarks roughly $8.7 billion for the creation of “crime prevention” programs. Most of these programs are not new at all, but rather a simple rehash of old, failed programs. The focus here is not on fighting crime, but on expanding the reach of social welfare programs. Indeed, if these crime prevention funds are directed to hiring new social workers, the bill will put a minimum of 40,000 new social workers on the government payroll ever year. At least two social workers will be hired for every police officer the bill puts on the street. Now there’s an interesting way to fight crime.

If you remain attracted to social welfare and social workers as crime prevention techniques, consider this: The U.S. has spent some $5 trillion on the War on Poverty since 1965, yet the national crime rate stands at its highest level ever. Past welfare spending appears to have had little impact on reducing the crime rate. So why are we throwing even more money into a program that repeats past failures?

The current crime bill–like so many that have gone before it– is laden with political pork. For example, the bill includes:

  • $1.8 billion for redistribution to local governments plagued by high taxes, high unemployment, and low personal income. In other words, those local governments that overtax their citizens will be rewarded with federal funding.

  • $270 million for community-based organizations that can use the funds for cultural programs, arts and crafts, and dance lessons.

  • $40 million for midnight basketball leagues. Government agents will dictate how many teams can play in each league and how many players can play on each team. Apparently, the bill’s sponsors believe that keeping youngsters away from their homes and families between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. will make them less likely to participate in criminal activity.

Frankly, what we have in the 1994 crime bill is one of the largest expansions of ineffective federal programs in our history. The bill repeats past mistakes, pours money into well-intentioned but incredibly wasteful and ineffective programs, and allows Congress to wash its hands of the problem by claiming to be tough on crime. Maybe it s time we adopt a “three strikes and you re out” policy for government programs.

Michael Finch is public affairs director for The Heartland Institute.