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Hillary Clinton calls for end to mass incarceration, reversing Bill Clinton legacy

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband former US President Bill Clinton attend an event at the Clinton Global Initiative's meeting in New York in September.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and husband former US President Bill Clinton attend an event at the Clinton Global Initiative's meeting in New York in September.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton will propose providing body cameras to every police department in the country and, even more important, call for an end to the "era of mass incarceration," explicitly rejecting a pillar of Bill Clinton's legacy.

Hillary Clinton's remarks in New York later today come against the backdrop of authorities trying to regain control of riot-torn Baltimore — a matter Clinton plans to address — and at a time when 2016 presidential candidates in both parties are rethinking the wisdom of long prison sentences.

Clinton's position on mass incarceration is at once a stunning condemnation of one of the most clear-cut policy failures of Bill Clinton's presidency, a flashing sign of how that policy failure has fundamentally altered the national political landscape on criminal justice issues, and a relatively pedestrian prescription for a Democrat, given where some Republicans stand on sentencing reform.

In 1994, Bill Clinton's crime bill prescribed putting 100,000 more police on American streets, authorized billions of dollars for prison construction, forced states to impose harsher sentences on violent offenders to be eligible for prison-construction grants, and deprived federal inmates of access to college courses. It also banned assault weapons for a decade.

Two years later, Clinton campaigned aggressively on the law, which liberals in his own party, particularly minorities, warned would have negative unintended consequences. The Democratic Party's platform in 1996 included a long run about Clinton's crime bill, praising him for taking a tough stand on sentencing: "We believe that people who break the law should be punished, and people who commit violent crimes should be punished severely. President Clinton made three-strikes-you're-out the law of the land, to ensure that the most dangerous criminals go to jail for life, with no chance of parole."

Twenty years ago, harsh sentences were political gold for a Democratic president seeking to show his toughness in a reelection campaign. Now Republican presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, are calling for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. And Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, knows ending mass incarceration is high on the priority list for many in her own party and outside it.

Since that 1996 election, the prevailing wisdom on Bill Clinton's approach — and his position on it — has changed. An analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that incarceration rates and crime rates can drop at the same time.

Crime rate incarceration rate scatterplot

In the foreword to a new series of essays put together by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Bill Clinton preempted Hillary's remarks by two days.

"The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement. But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark," he wrote, echoing a sentiment he expressed last fall. "We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then. It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences."

In his view, he writes, putting more cops on the street worked.

But that's a big part of the reason for the growth in incarceration, the authors of a National Research Council of the National Academies study concluded.

"The increase in the use of imprisonment as a response to crime reflects a clear policy choice," they wrote. "In the 1980s and 1990s, state and federal legislators passed and governors and presidents signed laws intended to ensure that more of those convicted would be imprisoned and that prison terms for many offenses would be longer than in earlier periods. No other inference can be drawn from the enactment of hundreds of laws mandating lengthier prison terms."

Today, Hillary Clinton will talk about the "need to reform our criminal justice system by changing the way we approach punishment and prison, including reforms to probation and drug diversions, increasing support for mental health and drug treatment, and pursuing alternative punishments for low-level offenders, especially young people," a Clinton aide said.

She'll speak at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University, and she will also endorse expanding the use of body cameras by police departments, according to the aide.

The body cameras may well be the headline. But the 180-degree turn in the politics of mass incarceration, and in the Clintons' approach to criminal justice, is the story.

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