In the 1994 State of the Union address, Clinton hoped for the passage of “the toughest crime bill in history” (Clinton 1994). In that same year, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was signed into law by Clinton, and the Department of Justice confirms that this bill was the “largest crime bill in the history of the country” (DOJ 1994). This bill was not just large, but largely punitive. The VCCLEA did ban the manufacture of assault weapons, firearm sales to domestic abusers, and “strengthens federal licensing standards for firearms dealers” (DOJ 1994), but the extent that the legislation was punitive in terms of how it approached both sentencing and prison education deserves emphasis. Not only did the bill expand the federal death penalty to sixty crimes, including large-scale drug trafficking, but also “Doubles the maximum term of imprisonment for repeat sex offenders” and includes three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing, whereas a person who has been convicted three or more times for violent felonies is given “Mandatory life imprisonment without possibility of parole” (DOJ 1994). Clinton stressed the necessity of three-strikes sentencing in his State of the Union when arguing that “criminals…too often break the laws even when they are on parole” (Clinton 1994). However, Clinton surprisingly opposed Congress on Section 20411 of the bill, “Awards of Pell Grants to prisoners prohibited” (GPO 1994).
Clinton agrees with the view that providing the opportunity to apply for Pell grants to prisoners would reduce recidivism. He states that, “Getting an education while in prison further reduces the chances that an inmate will commit another crime when released…Prison officials say inmates involved in education are much better behaved. Their professors say they work hard to learn the material…college education is the surest way to close the revolving door of crime and imprisonment” (Clinton 2007). Clinton’s punitive approach to sentencing does not, at first, seem inconsistent with support for prisoner Pell grants; providing opportunities for education would be unlikely to change how long one’s prison term lasts for. However, there are two caveats. First, Clinton’s approach to crime was still generally speaking quite punitive; he was likely not willing to muster the political will to veto the entire VCCLEA because of how he feels about prisoner Pell grants. And second, politicians, in taking directive from the President’s call to action in the 1993 State of the Union that “We must pass a tough crime bill” (Clinton 1993) likely felt politically enabled to resist prisoner Pell grants.1
Indeed, congressional transcripts of the debate about prisoner Pell grants show that opposition to postsecondary education opportunities for prisoners fit right in line with a “tough on crime” mindset. For example, Representative Jack Fields, a Republican from Texas, argued that, “We need more higher education funds for our constituents’ sons and daughters who are struggling to pay for their children’s college expenses. Our constituents already pay to feed, house, clothe and rehabilitate prisoners. Their sons and daughters shouldn’t have to do without so that incarcerated prisoners can use Pell grant funds to go to college” (Fields 1994). Fields seems willing to tolerate rehabilitation programs which already exist, yet prisoner Pell grants somehow test his limits. His “tough on crime” approach is evident in that he implies that prisoners are inherently undeserving of funding for postsecondary educational pursuits. Another example is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, who argued that, “The American people are frustrated by a Federal Government and a Congress…that sets rules that put convicts at the head of the line for college financial aid, crowding out law abiding citizens” (Hutchison 1993). Senator Claiborne Pell, who was a key figure in the establishment of the Pell grant program, in a 1994 Senate debate calls out Kay Bailey Hutchison in referring to an excerpt from the Washington Post which reads, “America’s wardens and parole officers know what few in the Senate and House are willing to acknowledge…Education equals prevention. Diplomas are crime stoppers…The Senate backed an amendment–sponsored by Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who is currently under felony indictment for political abuses–to deny prisoners college courses under Pell grants” (Pell 1994). Pell might have mentioned the reference to Hutchison’s felony indictment to challenge the dichotomy that she establishes separating “The American people” from “convicts” (Yates 2009). He, being probably the most knowledgeable person about the program, also points out at one point that critics are incorrect in supposing that law-abiding students are somehow crowded out if prisoners also have the opportunity to receive Pell grants. Pell notes that, “…no prisoner displaces another deserving student who is not in prison. The Pell grant program functions as a quasi-entitlement in which a student qualifies for a grant, and the size of the grant depends on the availability of sufficient appropriations. Thus, a student is not cut out of the program because a prisoner qualifies for a grant” (Pell 1993). Despite that Hutchison was factually incorrect she would have likely persisted in demonizing criminals because doing so reflected popular opinion amidst the punitive political climate that Clinton played a significant role in fueling. Hutchison would continue to perpetuate a mindset about the criminal justice system that has developed for decades of recent history and continues to affect the United States today.
What has been missed by the criminal justice policies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton is that social conditions really do matter when it comes to how the US government should address crime. This belief has been echoed by Cornel West who in the context of African-Americans argues that, “Conservative behaviorists talk about values and attitudes as if political and economic structures hardly exist. They rarely, if ever, examine the innumerable cases in which black people do act on the Protestant ethic and still remain at the bottom of the social ladder” (West 1993). West clarifies that this conclusion “is not the same as asserting that individual black people are not responsible for their actions – black murderers and rapists should go to jail” (West 1993); since a more rehabilitative approach obviously does not deny that crime is wrong, supporters of “tough on crime” policies should keep in mind that if they want to see crime minimized they should avoid the emotional pull toward seeking vengeance against criminals. Although West uniquely discusses problems facing African-Americans, his conclusion applies to most poor people in the United States whether white or black. Lack of education is a particular inhibitor to advancing up the socioeconomic ladder which is especially problematic for prisoners released without having had the ability to apply for a Pell grant while in prison. If prisoners were able to pursue postsecondary education in prison with a Pell grant, both crime and poverty would be significantly reduced. Anne Buzzini notes, “Were it possible for inmates to receive an education while serving time…they would have a much greater chance of escaping the clutches of poverty and their ties to illegal activity when they are released back into society….inmates with at least two years of college had a 10 percent re-arrest rate; the national average is 60 percent…” (Buzzini 2009). Despite the substantial decrease in recidivism, the VCCLEA of 1994 destroyed numerous prison education programs with minor benefit to non-prison students who politicians claimed were supposedly robbed of a deserved education. Celia Chazelle states that, “Ending Pell grants to inmates saved enough to increase grants to non-prison students by a paltry $5 each per semester, while decimating prison postsecondary education programs. After 1994, only eight remained open” (Chazelle 2011). The enormous benefit to prisoners ignored by politicians who speak of a “tradeoff” is clear when we consider the story of Michael Santos2. He writes that, “I had been a mediocre student in high school, but I seized upon opportunities to educate myself while I was in prison. During that era, prisoners could still apply for Pell grants…The Pell grant…changed my life…as the government became more punitive, it stripped away Pell grant funding for people in prison…high-level staff members frequently told me that they did not care anything about what happened to the offender after he emerged from prison” (Santos 2012). Looking back on Nixon’s criticism of the civil rights movement and interaction with the Burger Court, Reagan and Bush Sr.’s escalation of the War on Drugs, and Clinton’s signing into law a crime bill whose negative effects can be clearly seen in the context of prison education, one hopefully recognizes that being “tough on crime” is not the correct approach.