Using Multiple Objective Analytics to Improve Federal Laws


The major crime bills of the last 60 years include the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Act of 1968, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (HR 5484, 1986), the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) of 1994, and the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018. This chapter addresses the latter two acts. The VCCLEA is often referred to as the Clinton Crime Bill since President Clinton was an advocate of the bill. The Criminal Justice Reform Act is often referred to as the First Step Act.

Following this introduction, we discuss the VCCLEA in the second section of this chapter. This act, costing approximately $31 billion, was and still is the largest crime bill in the history of the United States. We discuss the motivation for the law, its elements, and the results of its implementation. In addition, we discuss its detractors and supporters, and the law’s effect on crime and incarceration rates. A major portion of the law is the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program; we provide a costbenefit analysis of this program based on data provided from a GAO report.

In the third section of this chapter, we discuss the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018 (the First Step Act). A major portion of this section is a description of the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risks and Needs (PATTERN). This tool allows for the classification of prisoners according to their tendency toward violent behavior and likelihood of recidivism. Finally, an illustrative example involving the investigation of two controls for the First Step Act is provided. The example involves the use of a Monte Carlo simulation, interfaced with a multiattribute utility function to allow for the consideration of trade-offs among the various performance measures for this decision situation.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

Impetus for the Law

Starting in 1987, into the early 1990s, the murder rate in the United States was increasing by about 5% each year, peaking at 9.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 (see Table 1.1). Much of the violence resulted from the Crack Cocaine Epidemic, and many of the victims were young African Americans, living in the inner cities of the country (Lussenhop, 2016). As noted by Blumstein (1995) many of the criminals associated with these crimes were also young African Americans recruited for the illicit drug market. These racial inequalities were part of the motivation for the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) of 1994 (more commonly known as the Clinton Crime Bill). This Act was at the time, and still is, the largest (in terms of funding) crime bill in US history, costing approximately $31 billion. It contained 33 different subject areas (Rosenfeld, 2019). The more specific provisions of the law are drawn from these subject areas or titles.

Elements of the Law

Some of the main subject areas of the act, as specified in Rosenfeld (2019), are public safety and policing, prisons, crime prevention, violence against women, drug courts, death penalty, mandatory life imprisonment for persons convicted of certain felonies, applicability of mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases, firearms, youth violence, crimes against children, state and local law enforcement, victims of crime, and sentencing.

Some of the specific provisions of the act include the following:

  • 1. $7.6 billion in funding was provided for the establishment of the office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which allowed for the hiring of approximately 100,000 additional police in cities throughout the country.
  • 2. $9.7 billion in funding was provided to states for the building of new' prisons.
  • 3. The three-strikes law, which mandated life imprisonment for persons convicted of a violent felony or a serious drug offense after having been convicted previously of a violent felony on two or more separate occasions, was enacted.
  • 4. Funding was provided for a database consisting of 12 years of data (from 1990 to 2001) on crime.
  • 5. Truth-in-sentencing laws were enacted.
  • 6. Block grants were provided for prevention of crime through, for example, recreational programs focusing on at-risk youth.
  • 7. The Violence Against Women Act, which increased penalties for sexual abuse and expanded assistance to victims of sexual assault among several other things, was enacted.
  • 8. Grants were provided to states and cities for the establishment of drug courts.
  • 9. The federal death penalty was expanded to cover 60 offenses, including the murder of a federal law enforcement officer, extensive drug trafficking, drive-by-shootings, and carjackings resulting in death.

Rosenfeld (2019) provides more detailed descriptions of these provisions, along with several other provisions emanating from the law.

Implementation Results

The actual implementation of the VCCLEA did not always match the law as written. For example, as noted above, $9.7 billion was set aside to states for the building of new prisons; however, only $3 billion was actually spent during the seven years of the law’s appropriations (Gest, 2019). At least part of the difficulty was that the funding to the states for prisons was tied to the truth-in-sentencing provision, which required that prisoners serve at least 85% of their stated sentences. This part of the law was called the “Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in Sentencing”, shortened to VOI/TIS. In addition, many states had already begun to enact stricter sentences for certain crimes.

With respect to the provision of adding 100,000 additional police, a GAO Report (Community Policing Grants, 2005) found that in 2000, which was the peak year of expenditures for this provision, 17,000 additional officers were hired. However, from 1994 to 2001, contributions through the COPS program allowed for the hiring of 88,000 additional police, not the 100,000 as stated in the bill (Community Policing Grants, 2005).

The notion of community policing is defined as an approach to policing that involves the cooperation of law enforcement and the community in identifying and developing solutions to crime problems (page 39, Community Policing Grants, 2005). Examples of activities associated with community policing are identifying crime problems by looking at records ofcrime trends and analyzing repeat calls for service, working with other public agencies to solve disorder problems, locating offices or stations within neighborhoods, and collaborating with community residents by increasing officer contact with citizens and improving citizen feedback (page 43, Community Policing Grants, 2005).

It is apparent from the quotes in the previous paragraph that “community policing” is a nebulous concept that is difficult to measure. It is also apparent that the directives associated with the community policing grants could have been, and probably should be, more specific in nature.

Detractors and Supporters

The 1994 Act has both its detractors and its supporters. As is usually the case, whether one is a detractor, or a supporter depends upon how one values the various outcome measures of the act. In addition, because of its complex nature, it is often difficult to determine the effect of the bill on some measures, such as reduction in crime.

Much of the African American community are critics of the law because a relatively large portion of those incarcerated as a result of the VCCLEA are African Americans. In rebuttal, some politicians point to the fact that 10 Black mayors from major American cities urged the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to support the bill, which they eventually did. However, it is noted that while supporting the basic idea of the bill, the CBC introduced an alternative bill which included an additional $2 billion funding for drug treatment programs and $3 billion for early intervention programs (Eisen, 2019).

There has been much debate, and several studies about whether, and if so by how much, crime has been reduced as a result of the VCCLEA. As would be expected, most of the focus is on the effectiveness of the COPS program. Portions of the debate deal with the motivation of criminals and the motivation for persons to report crime.

Motivation of Criminals

With respect to the motivation of criminals, the utilitarian theory basically says that most criminals are rational and will choose actions which maximize their expected utility; therefore they will be less likely to choose crime as opposed to choosing legal means to obtain benefits if they are more likely to be arrested because of an increased police presence (Marvell and Moody, 1996).

A related theory is referred to as incapacitation (Ehrlich, 1972). This theory says that more criminals will be arrested if there are more police. This will lead to more criminals being incarcerated and not homeless. With fewer criminals homeless, there will be less crime.

Marvell and Moody (1996) discuss several flaws in each of these theories, as well as reasons why adding more police does not often lead to a reduction in crime. One reason is that police strategies such as reliance on car patrols and responding to 911 calls are not good strategies for crime reduction. Another reason mentioned by Marvell and Moody is that the utilitarian theory is not necessarily valid since criminals may not act in a rational way, at least according to the researchers in the area. For example, with more police, criminals may switch to less risky crimes; but to maintain their income levels, they may need to commit more of these less risky crimes. Hence, as noted by Marvell and Moody, more police can actually lead to more crime, depending upon how crime is measured.

The Law’s Effect on Crime

Various studies have come to different conclusions concerning the bill’s effect on crime and the effect, in general, of providing more funding for crime prevention. Examples of publications in this area include Zhao et al (2002), Worrall and Kovandzic (2007), Sullivan and O'Keefe (2016), and Mello (2018), who determined that support to local governments for crime prevention can be effective, especially during times of economic downturn. Others have been pessimistic about the effects of almost any overt action on reducing crime (Miller, 1989).

The GAO report mentioned earlier (Community Policing Grants, 2005) stated that:

between 1993 and 2000, COPS funds contributed to a 1.3 percent decline in the overall crime rate and a 2.5 percent decline in the violent crime rate from the 1993 levels.

The GAO report stated that these effects held true even when other crime factors, such as economic conditions, were controlled for.

The GAO report also stated that, between 1993 and 2000, the overall crime rate declined by 26% and the violent crime rate declined by 32%. Hence, COPS funding contributed to 5% (or approximately 1.3% divided by 26%) of the overall crime rate reduction, and to a little more than 7% (or approximately 2.5% divided by 32%) of the violent crime rate reduction.

A Cost–Benefit Analysis of the COPS Program

The estimates for decrease in crime from the GAO report provide information that could be used in a rough cost-benefit analysis of the COPS program, given that some additional assumptions are made. The GAO report quoted above mentions only the decrease in crime from 1993 to 2000, but does not mention the decreases in 1994, 1995, etc. Also, given that there was a 1.3% decline in the overall crime rate and a 2.5% decline in the violent crime rate, due to the COPS program, one could estimate a 1.13% decline in the property crime rate from the COPS program. (The overall crime rate is heavily weighted towards the property crime rate, as discussed in Chapter 1; hence the weightings, based on numbers of crimes, as shown in Table 1.1, give a 1.3% overall value for the decrease, based on the weightings given to 1.13% (property crime rate) and 2.5% (violent crime rate).)

Now, if one assumes that the declines in violent crime rates and property crime rates ramp up in a linear fashion from 1993 to 2000, then these yearly percentage decreases (from the overall decrease for that year) as a result of the 1994 bill would be .3571429% for 1994, 2*3571429% for 1995, 3*3571429% for 1996, etc., up to 7*3571429% = 2.5% for the year 2000 from the base year of 1993 for violent crime. (Note that 2.5%/7 = .3571429%.) Similarly, the yearly percentage decreases in property crime (from the overall decrease for that year) as a result of the bill would be .1614286% for 1994, 2*1614286% for 1995, 3*1614286% for 1996, etc., up to 1.13% for the year 2000 from the base year of 1993 for property crime. (Note that 1.13%/7 = .1614286%.)

As an example, let us consider the year 1997. Table 1.1 indicates that the number of murders decreased from 9.5 per 100,000 population in 1993 to 6.8 per 100,000 population in 1997. Or, considering the populations of those years, the number of murders decreased from 24,501 in 1993 to 18,199 in 1997—a decrease of 6,302 murders.

According to our reasoning, 4* .3571429% = 1.428% of this decrease (or about 90 murders) was a result of the 1994 bill.

Carrying this type of calculation over all years and over all categories of crimes, one could calculate that from 1993 to 2000, because of the 1994 crime bill: 718 murders, 1,305 rapes, 16,280 aggravated assaults, 19,842 robberies, 25,022 burglaries, 21,027 larcenies, and 13,642 vehicle thefts were averted. Multiplying these numbers by the costs of $7.3 million per murder, $185,558 per rape, $74,301 per aggravated assault, $57,300 per robbery, $11,154 per burglary, $1,821 per larceny, and $7,732 per vehicle theft (as discussed in Chapter 1), respectively, we arrive at a figure of $8.2 billion in costs averted through the crime bill as a result of the COPS program. This compares to a spending of about $5 billion for the COPS program (as opposed to the $7.6 billion budgeted) (Community Policing Grants..., 2005). Even if the assumptions made in this rough analysis are slightly off, the COPS program paid off if the GAO report was an accurate estimate of the percentage decrease in crime. Of course, a more complete analysis would involve the consideration of things such as costs associated with the imprisonment of additional criminals.

The Law and Incarceration Rates

One of the criticisms of the bill is that it led to a large increase in the incarceration rate in the country. This has supposedly occurred through the increase in funding to the states for building prisons, the increase in the number of federal prisoners, and the changes in the sentencing laws among other things. All other things being equal, a higher incarceration rate is certainly a bad thing. However, if it corresponds to having more violent offenders off the streets (and thereby reducing the violent crime rate), it is a good thing. Hence, the value that one places on the incarceration rate is a complex issue.

These increasing incarceration rates associated with the bill led to criticisms of some politicians, such as Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders (see Rosenfeld (2019)) for their parts in getting the bill passed. This criticism of the bill focused in particular on the incarceration rate of young African Americans. Others, however, have disagreed with this assessment by noting that the trend in incarceration rate during the late 1990s was just a continuation of the trend from the late 1980s and early 1990s (Stanglin (2020) and Eisen (2019)). Others have noted that many states had already enacted laws that resulted in increased sentences for crimes prior to the enactment of the VCCLEA, and that these actions by the states caused whatever increase occurred in the incarceration rates (Gest (2019) and Sabol and Johnson (2019)).

President Clinton noted, in response to the previous criticism, that 90 percent of the people in prison too long are in state prisons and local jails (not federal prisons). He also noted that, in praise of the bill: because of that bill we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate (Farley, 2016).

As can be noted from the discussion above, the VCCLEA has a mixed legacy. Those who criticize the bill tend to overstate the bad effects and understate the good effects, and those who praise the bill tend to overstate the good effects and understate the bad effects. In addition, disagreements can occur as a result of disputes about the causes of crime.

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