As the front-runner for the democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has been saying all the right things and making all the right moves. At an April 28 Columbia University forum on Criminal Justice, Hillary Clinton gave a passionate speech calling for the reform of the criminal justice system, intoning that, “We don’t want to create another incarceration generation,” in reference to the present generation of youth impacted by mass incarceration.
Clinton called for the reform of mandatory minimums and ending the marginalization of formerly incarcerated citizens. It was a very “politically correct” speech; Clinton hit all the talking points on mass incarceration. The question is: Can Hillary Clinton be trusted to dismantle the prison state her husband built? Don’t count on it; and, if history is our guide, we can expect more of the same under Clinton if she is elected president.
Former President Bill Clinton is best remembered for presiding over one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in US history. However, the gem in Clinton’s presidential legacy is an unprecedented era of prison expansion and the mass incarceration of the nation’s citizens, with the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated under Clinton being Black and Brown.
Bill Clinton incarcerated more African Americans than any president in US history. It was under Bill Clinton that the United States embarked on the most massive prison expansion in US history. In 1994, Clinton endorsed and signed into law the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” commonly referred to as the “Clinton Crime Bill.” The Act passed the US Senate by an overwhelming vote of 95-4.
During his 1994 State of the Union address, Clinton endorsed the federal “Three Strikes and You’re Out Law” to enthusiastic applause from both Democrats and Republicans. The “Crime Bill” he subsequently signed into law cost $30 billion and created dozens of new federal crimes warranting mandatory sentences and mandatory life sentences, including the “Three Strikes” law.
The bill allowed juveniles as young as 13 to be prosecuted for certain federal offenses; expanded the death sentence to cover over 60 offenses; allocated $16 billion toward state prison construction grants and the expansion of local and state police; authorized $500 million to the Bureau of Prisons to establish facilities to securely house juvenile offenders; and provided “bonus” grants to states that develop systems to prosecute juveniles as adults for violent offenses. Clinton also supported legislation that eliminated federal “Pell Grants” to prisoners for college education behind bars, essentially gutting college programs in prison systems around the country.
Infused with billions in federal funding to supplement prison construction and enact mandatory sentencing laws, states across the nation went on a prison-expansion binge.
In Pennsylvania, during Clinton’s eight years in office, seven new prisons were built, increasing the state’s prison population from 19,000 to 50,000. Eager to get their hands on federal “bonus” grants, the state legislature passed a law drafted by State Senator Greenleaf, allowing for automatic transfer of juveniles charged with violent offenses into the adult system. So many juveniles were prosecuted as adults that the Department of Corrections built SCI-Pine Grove, a prison devoted exclusively to juvenile offenders sentenced as adults, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black youth. In Pennsylvania, Black and Brown bodies from the state’s urban centers are the capital that feeds prison expansion. The state legislature is the 21st century auction block.
In 1993, when President Clinton entered office, the nation’s prison population was just over 1 million. By the time Clinton left office in 2000, the nation’s prison population had doubled to over 2 million. One in every four African-American men was either in prison or under some form of correctional supervision (probation or parole). It took 20 years for the nation’s prison population to expand from 250,000 in the 1970s to 1 million by 1992. By contrast, it took Clinton only eight years to double the nation’s prison population from 1 million to over 2 million. In addition to being commander in chief, Clinton was busy being Incarcerator in Chief.
Clinton’s campaign on mass incarceration expanded beyond prison expansion and repressive criminal legislation. Clinton also initiated the “One Strike and You’re Out” Initiative in Public Housing Policy, prohibiting anyone with a prison record from public housing and thus reducing countless people to homelessness and criminality. According to Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, Clinton’s tough-on-crime rhetoric and action were part of a grand strategy to appeal to the elusive white swing voter to ensure Clinton’s reelection.
It didn’t have to be this way. If Clinton wasn’t so interested in doing anything possible to be reelected, he could have pushed back the right-wing conservatives who were driving the tough-on-crime bandwagon. There was opposition to the Crime Bill and warnings about its future impact on communities of color.
African-American congressmen John Conyers and Craig Washington offered an alternative Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Reform Act that recommended job training, job creation and youth preventive measures, while still including sharp increases in sentencing. This was rejected by Clinton, as apparently it didn’t appeal to white voters or sufficiently advocate the mass incarceration of Black and Brown youth.
An even more innovative measure was submitted to Clinton by Dr. Imari Obadele and the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, calling for a billion dollars to be spent on a national program to build regional campuses to train “at-risk” youth and prepare them for entry into institutions of higher education. Clinton responded to this proposal with a generic letter reaffirming his support for the Crime Bill, harsher prison sentences, more police and more prisons.
Community activists were also sounding the alarm. Kai Lumumba Barrow, of the New York Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, warned at the time that the crime bill would not make our communities safer and that because the war on drugs is concentrated in inner-city communities, which are predominately Black and Latino, they would bear the brunt of the Crime Bill. She also stated that – due to the racially coded tough-on-crime rhetoric of right-wing conservatives and the unrelenting, sensationalist media coverage of crime and youth of color – society was primed for blood and didn’t want to discuss rational solutions to crime. Twenty years later, we are now grappling with the irrational political decisions that fast-tracked millions of people into the nation’s prison industrial complex.
At a time when the nation’s poor and disadvantaged needed strong leadership, Clinton exposed himself as a spineless politician, willing to sacrifice generations of Black and Brown youth to ensure his political ascendancy.
Now, should we be so naive as to expect Hillary Clinton, who always supported similar punitive measures, to risk her potential presidency by dismantling his legacy of mass incarceration? So far, besides hollow safe rhetoric, Hillary Clinton has given people nothing to be hopeful about.
When she comes out against mandatory sentences; proposes the repeal of Three Strikes and You’re Out automatic life sentences; calls for the abolishment of sentencing juvenile offenders as adults; moves beyond the safe language of providing relief only to “nonviolent” offenders and instead extends that demand to include relief to all offenders, then maybe there can be some optimism.
If President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder couldn’t muster the strength to dismantle the prison state and simply continued business as usual, we shouldn’t get any hopes up about Hillary Clinton’s prospects of rolling back mass incarceration. In order to do that, she will have to roll back the raw ambition, power and privilege that have defined the Clintons’ political ascendency.