As early as the 1960s, the topic of criminal justice reform was at the center of healthy debates in Congress. Prior to the official formation of the CBC, congressional members like Rep. Augustus “Gus” Hawkins (CA) and Rep. John Conyers (MI) had already begun the process of challenging the fairness of the nation’s most significant criminal justice laws. The DC Crime Bill, first introduced in 1963, was one of the first of such laws. Rep. Conyers recognized the negative implications of such a piece of legislation for the African-American community. This crime bill gave more authority and power to police over the citizens of the District of Columbia, and also included mandatory minimum sentences, which Conyers believed would “act to the detriment of what the proposers of the bill [we]re trying to achieve – a crime-free city.”
Following the Civil Rights Movement, police brutality towards African Americans was still a reality, so the idea of giving more support to police officers was a risk Rep. Conyers (MI) was not willing to take. In a floor debate opposing the bill, Rep. Conyers concluded with the following: “[t]his bill is a repressive and unpalatable measure, whether considered section by section, or as a whole. If it were adopted for the District of Columbia, it would undoubtedly serve as a precedent and pattern for the enactment of similar legislation by State and municipal legislative bodies.” So when the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Assistance Act of 1967, also known as the Omnibus Crime Bill, was introduced, which outlined similar directives to give State and local governments more authority and autonomy over its procedures, Rep. Conyers voted against the bills, both in 1967 and 1968.
Debates on the floor and within the CBC would continue through the mid- to late-1980s, as President Ronald Reagan sought to make his own contributions to drug and crime policies in America. A decade earlier, President Richard Nixon had declared the “War on Drugs,” but the Reagan years were the critical turning point for the American criminal justice system. Before the policies was the “Just Say No” Campaign, championed by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Like many, Reps. Charles Rangel (NY) and Mickey Leland (TX) believed the campaign had been largely effective across the nation, but other CBC members, like Rep. George Crockett, Jr. (MI), believed otherwise. In a statement on April 28, 1988, Rep. Crockett said, “Studies have shown that [the Just Say No’ campaign] is having some effect in lowering drug use. However, this success is solely among middle-class, educated young people….The ‘Just Say No’ campaign is not working, however, and cannot work, with poor or educationally disadvantaged young people. These children DON’T see a bright future that will be threatened by drug use.” Rep. Crockett became the first of the CBC members, and of the Congress for that matter, to suggest a seemingly radical proposition for drug reform during that time: decriminalizing drugs. Doing so, he believed, would remove the profit motive and curb some of the nation’s drug problems. Rep. Rangel, who was also chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, fiercely disagreed, stating that suggesting such a policy change would represent “moral and political suicide.”
When President Reagan passed The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, these laws signaled a fundamental shift in crime policy. Under these laws, harsher mandatory minimum sentencing laws were instituted and consequences for engaging in drug activity changed from being more rehabilitative to more punitive. There was little debate at the time these laws were passed, including within the CBC, but as years passed, the CBC began to see the damaging effects of these policies on the African-American community, namely through significant increases in incarceration of black young men, and harsher sentencing for drug offenses involving crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine because of these policies. Debates did not end there, however. When President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act(“Clinton’s Crime Bill”) into law in September of 1994, there were mixed feelings within the CBC about this particular piece of legislation. Still to date the largest crime bill in US history, it channeled billions of dollars to provide for new police officers, funding for prisons, and increased funding for prevention programs, but more importantly, it expanded federal law in areas ranging from death penalty and civil rights- related crimes(hate crimes and sex crimes) to gang-related crimes, among other things. On one hand, Clinton’s commitment to being “tough on crime” resonated with some CBC members who too were committed to combating high incidents of crime in their own districts. On the other hand, however, some CBC members noted the passage of such a bill would be incomplete if it did not include racial bias provisions, which would allow those charged to show racial bias when appealing executive orders for their death sentences. The bill was ultimately passed without the racial bias provisions in it, but many members CBC members remain committed to finding new ways to combat racial injustice within the criminal system.
Debating key issues on and off the House floor was not always easy, but there were instances in which doing so proved fruitful. Despite contentions within the CBC on Clinton’s Crime Bill, there was an almost unanimous sentiment against the drug policies of the Reagan era. CBC members, including Reps. John Conyers (MI), John Lewis (GA), Floyd Flake (NY), Maxine Waters (CA), and Bobby Scott (VA) fervently debated the inequities of Reagan’s drug policies of 1986 and 1988, and through the recent passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, have achieved a significant victory in ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system for all Americans.