Thomas Frank – Bill Clinton’s crime bill destroyed lives, and there’s no point denying it

Here is an actual headline that appeared in the New York Times this week: Prison Rate Was Rising Years Before 1994 Law.

It is an unusual departure for a newspaper, since what is being reported here is not news but history – or, rather, a particular interpretation of history. The “1994 Law” to which the headline refers is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act; the statement about the “prison rate” refers to the fact that America was already imprisoning a large portion of its population before that 1994 law was approved by Congress.

The media has stepped up to reassure us that the nightmare isn’t real, that this honorable man did the best he could

As historical interpretations go, this one is pretty non-controversial. Everyone who has heard about the “War on Drugs” knows that what we now call “mass incarceration”, the de facto national policy of locking up millions of low-level offenders, began long before 1994. And yet similar stories reporting that non-startling fact are now being published all across the American media landscape. That mass incarceration commenced before 1994 is apparently Big News.

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