“We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders,” then-first lady Hillary Clinton said in 1994, supporting the tough-on-crime policies of then-President Bill Clinton's administration that preceded an enormous increase in the U.S. prison population. "The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan," she said. "We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.”
Those remarks stand in stark contrast to policy proposals that 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laid out Wednesday, when she repudiated policies championed by her husband and aligned herself with the current trend of supporting criminal justice reforms. In the first major policy speech of her weeks-old campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Clinton pivoted toward plans that could “end mass incarceration” and address the distrust in communities of color where tough-on-crime policies are most felt.
“There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” Clinton said in the speech at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York. “There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetime.”
The former secretary of state called for nationwide use of officer-worn body cameras and new sentencing guidelines that emphasize treatment instead of prison for nonviolent drug offenders. But it’s at least the second time in recent years that she has had to distance herself from the legislative legacy of her husband -- including the bygone "don’t ask, don’t tell" military policy on homosexuality and the Defense of Marriage Act -- since becoming a political brand of her own.
While Clinton’s evolution on crime and punishment was nearly two decades in the making, shifting further to the left as she mounted her campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 2000 and the White House in 2008, it came years before her husband would finally admit that federal laws creating mandatory minimums, toughening punishments for repeat offenders and funding tens of thousands of new police officers had been bad for the country. “Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty,” Clinton said, as she linked tough-on-crime policies to racial and economic inequality.
Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which recently partnered with the Clintons on criminal justice policies, said few mainstream figures in Democratic or Republican national politics have come out as forceful as Hillary Clinton did Wednesday.
“I think it is reflective of the seismic shift in the politics of criminal justice,” Chettiar said. “People have moved away from vying to be the most punitive on crime in electoral politics toward being smarter. Her speech today really reflects that.”
Bill Clinton has had his “come to Jesus” moment on criminal justice reform, too. "No wonder law-abiding Americans are fed up with a system that lets too many career criminals get out of jail free," President Clinton said in 1994 while praising the three-strikes law following the sentencing of Thomas Farmer to life in prison under the federal sentencing guideline for armed robbery in Iowa in 1995. Twenty years later, Clinton said mass incarceration was an unintended consequence of his biggest legislative achievement.
“The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement," President Clinton wrote in the forward of a new book of essays from the Brennan Center released earlier this month. "But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long -- we have overshot the mark.”
'We Have to Do More'
Near the end of Clinton’s second term in the White House, the total U.S. prison population had risen by 673,000, considerably more than it did under President Ronald Reagan, a Justice Policy Institute study said. The biggest contributor to the increase, known as the "three-strike laws," committed habitual offenders to life prison sentences after two or more criminal convictions. In his first term, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a $30 billion bill that created new federal capital crimes, including mandatory minimums for crack and crack cocaine possession and billions of dollars for new prisons, a Salon report said.
In her own essay for the Brennan Center published Tuesday, Hillary Clinton said her evolution on criminal justice policy came during her U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns, when she called for reform of probation and drug diversion programs. She more forcefully reiterated those positions in her speech Wednesday.
“You and I know that the promise of de-institutionalizing those in mental health facilities was supposed to be followed by the creation of community-based treatment centers,” the former first lady said. “Well, we got half of that equation -- but not the other half. Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions. … We have to do more and finally get serious about treatment.”