The recent events in Baltimore, leading to the indictment of six police officers, have demonstrated the failure of the war on drugs and overly-aggressive police action. Hillary Clinton gave one of her typical speeches based upon the direction the wind is blowing, lacking details or any real sense of conviction, and failing to go far enough. It is a good thing that to some degree she her repudiated previous views, but for most opponents of the war on drugs and the Clinton’s right-wing approach to crime, this was too little and too late. Jacob Sullum, who covers “the war on drugs from a conscientious objector’s perspective,” wrote Why Hillary Clinton Lacks Credibility On Criminal Justice Reform.
For critics who have long argued that our criminal justice system puts too many people behind bars for too long, Clinton’s words of outrage were welcome. But they were also hard to take seriously given her history on this issue. While condemning overincarceration, she glided over her own role in promoting it and exaggerated her efforts to correct it. She referred only obliquely to the war on drugs, which has played an important role in sending nonviolent offenders to prison. And three decades after the prison population began the dramatic climb that she now considers shameful, Clinton offered almost no specific ideas for reversing it, which makes her look like a dilettante compared to politicians in both major parties who have given the issue serious thought.
As first lady in the 1990s, Clinton was a cheerleader for the “tough on crime” policies that produced the “era of mass incarceration” she now condemns. “We need more police,” she said in a 1994 speech. “We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.” The Clinton administration gave us all that and more, bragging about building more prisons, locking up more people (including nonviolent offenders) for longer stretches, opposing parole, expanding the death penalty, putting more cops on the street, and implementing a “comprehensive anti-drug strategy.”
In a 2001 report, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) noted that Bill Clinton “stole the ‘get tough on crime’ show” from Republicans by “consistently support[ing] increased penalties and additional prison construction.” The highlight of his efforts was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which subsidized cops and prisons, restricted gun ownership, expanded the use of the death penalty, created new mandatory minimum sentences, and added to the list of federal crimes, which were already too numerous to count. Looking at the results of the crackdown that Clinton led at the federal level and encouraged at the state level, JPI dubbed him “the incarceration president.” The total prison population grew by 673,000 during Clinton’s eight years in office, compared to 448,000 during Ronald Reagan’s two terms. The number of federal prisoners doubled under Clinton, rising more than it did during the previous 12 years under his two Republican predecessors.
By the end of his second term, Clinton seemed to be having second thoughts about this incarceration binge. “We really need a reexamination of our entire policy on imprisonment,” he told Rolling Stone in October 2000. “There are tons of people in prison who are nonviolent offenders.” Seven years later, while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton’s wife expressed similar qualms. “Mandatory sentences for certain violent crimes may be appropriate,” she said during a debate in June 2007, “but it has been too widely used.”
During another debate that December, Clinton was asked whether she regretted how “your husband’s crime bill…has affected the black community, or do you stand by that?” Both, apparently:
I think that the results not only at the federal level but at the state level have been an unacceptable increase in incarceration across the board, and now we have to address that….There were reasons why the Congress wanted to push through a certain set of penalties and increase prison construction, and there was a lot of support for that across a lot of communities because…the crime rate in the early ’90s was very high. And people were being victimized by crime in their homes, in their neighborhoods and their business. But we’ve got to take stock now of the consequences, so that’s why…I want to have a thorough review of all of the penalties.
As Dara Lind notes at Vox, Clinton nevertheless attacked her rival Barack Obama as soft on crime because he thought some of those penalties were too harsh. A month after Clinton decried “an unacceptable increase in incarceration,” her campaign tried to undermine Obama by citing his criticism of mandatory minimums.
Clinton’s position on her husband’s crime policies—that they were appropriate back then but maybe went a little overboard—rankles activists who were resisting the war on drugs when Bill Clinton was escalating it. Here is how Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, put it in a Huffington Post essay on Wednesday:
“Even as I rejoice at this outbreak of bipartisanship on a cause to which I’ve devoted my life, I must admit it also brings up feelings of anger and disappointment at the failure of Hillary Clinton, and other candidates, and so many other ostensible leaders to acknowledge that they were willing and even eager proponents of the very policies that produced America’s records-breaking rates of incarceration. The laws and policies we embraced back in the 1980s and 1990s, they’re all saying in one way or another, were the right thing at the time—but now we just need to roll them back now that times have changed.
“But the drug war policies of that era were never justifiable, and the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that they did far greater harm than good. No policy that results in the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and the highest in the history of democratic nations, is justifiable. And no policy that generated such devastating consequences for African American citizens and communities can or should ever be excused as a necessary response to the drug and crime problems a generation ago.”
Sullum noted Clinton’s lack of interest in reform as a Senator. I’d add that she was too busy collaborating with Rick Santorum, Sam Brownback, and others in The Fellowship. Instead of calling for reform of the criminal justice system, she was busy backing both the war in Iraq and the war on drugs, and busy pushing to make flag burning a penalty and for censorship of video games. Of course it is not rare for Clinton, after years of being on the wrong side of an issue, to finally come around. Quite often she as learned from her mistakes, but not until long after the damage was done. While it is common for Clinton to be to the right of the Democratic Party, on this issue she is even to the right of some Republicans:
Clinton is late to this party, and endorsing reforms backed by Republicans such as Paul, Cruz, and Lee would highlight that fact. Paul’s office responded to her speech by noting that “Hillary Clinton [is] trying to undo some of the harm inflicted by the Clinton administration” and “is now emulating proposals introduced by Senator Rand Paul over the last several years.” The press release cited five criminal justice bills Paul already has introduced this session, addressing mandatory minimum sentences, asset forfeiture, restoration of felons’ voting rights, expungement of criminal records, and police body cameras. “We welcome her to the fight,” it said.