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Bill Clinton apologized for his 1994 crime bill, but he still doesn’t get why it was bad

He feels your pain. But does he understand why it happened?
He feels your pain. But does he understand why it happened?

Hillary Clinton is campaigning on, among other things, an end to the era of mass incarceration. Awkwardly, Bill Clinton, former president of the United States, signed a law in 1994 that did a lot to accelerate mass incarceration.

Bill Clinton has been doing a lot to demonstrate that he has seen the error of his ways and supports his wife's reform efforts. He's made several statements acknowledging the errors of the 1994 crime bill he passed. And speaking to the NAACP on Wednesday, July 15, Clinton put it as bluntly as he ever has: "I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit that."

He's right. But does he understand how it made the problem worse? He didn't in May, when he told the Hill:

"We have too many people in prison. And we wound up spending — putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out that they could live productive lives."

That was a problem! But that is not the problem that Clinton's bill made worse.

There were two big reasons the prison population rose so drastically from the 1980s to the late 2000s. One of them was, yes, that more people went to prison. But the other was that the people who went to prison were going for longer.

This chart is a little hard to read, because the red line for murder sentences is so bright and distracting. But there were very few murder sentences compared with other crimes. Instead, check out the more gradual, but definite, sentence increases for other crimes:

time served

The 1994 crime bill Clinton signed was a big reason for the second trend: longer prison terms. The law used funding for new prisons as a way to pressure states to get rid of parole and adopt "truth-in-sentencing" laws that required prisoners to serve out their sentences. Since states are responsible for much more incarceration than the federal government, this was one of the more influential things the federal government could do.

And it worked. When Clinton signed the bill, five states had truth-in-sentencing laws. In 1995, 11 new states passed them. Another 13 states passed truth-in-sentencing laws in the next five years. (Many of these states didn't explicitly say they were doing it to go after federal funding, and some of them didn't ask for it.)

That didn't just end up taking up money that could have been used for prison programming, to help people "live productive lives" when they got out. It deliberately forced them to spend more of their lives in prison. They had less of a chance to live productive lives after release, because they had less of their lives to live.

A lot of the progress that's been made at the state level over the past several years has been aimed at reducing the length of prison sentences — in other words, undoing what states had done during the Clinton era. The Clinton crime bill doesn't deserve all the blame for the push for longer sentences. But that is its lasting legacy.

The Clintons are politicians, and it makes sense that they've shifted their positions in response to the demands of the public and their party. In the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats were afraid of being seen as "soft on crime," and felt that cracking down on crime might help African-American communities; today, Democrats are responding to growing awareness that mass incarceration perpetuates a lot of the problems it's supposed to solve, and a grassroots movement protesting police killings of young, often unarmed black men. Their party is now more worried about policing and prison than swing voters are about crime.

But when it comes to actually proposing solutions, a politician has to do more than understand that something is a problem. That leads to exactly the same kind of "do something" politics that got us into this mess to begin with. Understanding what the solutions will be — and why they might have to include politically difficult measures, like reducing sentences for violent crime — requires understanding why it's a problem.

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