Last week, EBONY published an article about the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, simply known as the crime bill, and its effect on black women — something I’d never considered.
The bill, which was originally authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, remains the largest crime bill in history. It included funding for prisons and a large expansion of law enforcement but also stiff gang provisions and “three strikes” language, all of which served to actualize a prison industrial complex we generally refer to as “mass incarceration.” Today, portions of the crime bill, particularly its limited investment in prevention — are generally regarded as a “terrible mistake.”
Here are a couple ways the crime bill does little for black women in this country:
– Violence against women: The crime bill allocated more that $1.5 million to the prevention and investigation of violence against women. However, while the effort to bring attention to gender-based violence may have had some positive impact, it has been difficult to reconcile with the ever-increasing reliance on incarceration as a remedy for the nation’s social and medical problems (e.g., addiction, mental illness, physical abuse, etc.). In this climate, women like Kemba Smith — who never sold drugs herself, but who suffered from an extremely abusive relationship with a man who sold illegal drugs — were sent to prison. Smith was granted clemency by President Clinton in December 2000; but there are many women who are still in prison— serving life sentences for drug and other offenses — without consideration of their victimization.
– Elimination of education funds for incarcerated people: A highly controversial component of the law restricted financial support for education in correctional facilities. Between 1991 and 1997, approximately 40 percent of all inmates did not have a high school diploma or GED. A survey of five all-female jails in 1995, shortly after the crime bill was signed into law, found that none of the jails provided college courses to the women who were incarcerated there. A recent audit in California found that women (including 35 black women) who had been illegally sterilized in the state’s prisons had below a high school level of reading proficiency. For females, education is an important protective factor against incarceration. In other words, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to find employment and ultimately, steer away from the criminal justice system. Today, while the U.S. Department of Education has produced a helpful guide for supporting the educational needs of formerly incarcerated people, there is currently little consideration for the specific learning needs of incarcerated women.