Johnson is the only Texan remaining in Congress who voted for the bill, which has become deeply unpopular among Democrats and is a contentious issue in the 2020 presidential primary.
On the afternoon of August 18, 1994, Eddie Bernice Johnson, a barrier-breaking freshman congresswoman from Dallas, stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and stumped for the most infamous legislation of that decade.
“Every day, most of the headlines have to do with crime,” she said, describing a desperate state of affairs in her home district. “School has been open less than two weeks now and already teachers have had guns in their faces. They found a gun arsenal underside of the building. It is overwhelming, but we must do something about it.”
Johnson was slated to speak that morning about health care, but she held off for 10minutes to weigh in on President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, which looked to be in jeopardy despite Democratic control of both chambers of Congress.
“I cannot understand why there is so much opposition and so much rhetoric and so much demagoguery surrounding the bill that will address these issues,” she said.
Three days after Johnson’s speech, the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act — better known today as the 1994 crime bill — passed the House. The next month, Clinton signed it into law.
Two-and-a-half decades later, Clinton’s $30 billion tough-on-crime bill has become a flashpoint in heated debates about criminal and racial justice. A sweeping package, the bill included several measures that are still broadly supported by Democrats today: It included more than $1 billion to fight violence against women and remains the last time Congress passed significant gun control legislation. But the bill also expanded the death penalty, introduced controversial three-strikes and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, and poured billions in funding toward the construction of federal prisons.
And today the legacy of the bill haunts many of its original champions. For a new generation of liberal voters, complicity with the crime bill’s passage is a sort of political mortal sin. Many Democratic voters remember the bill as an engine of mass incarceration fueled by cruel and racist policing laws. Most notably, Joe Biden, one of the its lead authors, has faced a constant barrage of attacks on his racial justice record as he tries to maintain his lead in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Johnson, the first black representative elected from Dallas, is the only current Texas representative who was in office to vote on the crime bill back in 1994. She campaigned for it at the time, and voted for it when it finally passed the House that August.
But in an interview this month in her Washington office, Johnson was unbending in her defense of her record, waiving off the criticisms that have assailed Biden and other backers of the crime bill. A quarter century later, she expressed no regrets.
“I’m not sorry,” Johnson told the Tribune, recalling her feeling of urgency at the time to eradicate the violence and drug trafficking that plagued her district. “If the circumstances were the same today as they were back then, I would do the same thing.”
More than 500 murders
In the decade leading up to Clinton’s inauguration, many American cities were reeling from crime. Year after year, cities across the country broke their own murder records. For black males between 14 and 18 years old in the 1980s, the leading cause of death was homicide. On TV, crime was inescapable. It even invaded children’s programing, where figures as unlikely as Pee Wee Herman fronted alarmist PSAsabout the lethal dangers of crack-cocaine.
Dallas was no exception. A 1989 PBS Frontline investigation into the city’s drug trade opened with a jarring declaration: “Behind the gleaming face of Dallas lies a war zone.” In 1991, local homicides surpassed 500, giving Dallas one of the highest murder rates of any city in the country.
“The thing that stood out nationally was the murder rate,” said former Dallas police Chief Ben Click, who took over the city’s police department not long after homicides peaked. “For a city that size to have 500 murders was amazing. … And those were just the murders. How many people were shot and all but didn’t die?”
By the early 1990s there was general consensus that something needed to be done about crime, but chasmic disagreement over how to address it. Democrats — under the leadership of familiar names like Clinton and Biden — championed sprawling prison expansion, harsher sentencing, and reloaded police forces. Republicans pushed back, wary of the unbridled federal spending needed for crime-control.
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