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Bill Clinton just gave criminal justice reformers another reason to be cautious of Hillary

Criminal justice reformers just got another reason to be skeptical of the Clintons.

On Thursday, racial justice protesters interrupted a Bill Clinton rally for Hillary, as they have done in the past, to highlight Hillary's 1996 remarks about "superpredators" — a racially charged term — and the Clintons' role in perpetuating mass incarceration.

Bill then attempted to respond to the protests. But his response seemed to miss the point:

I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn't. She didn't. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth!

The concerns with Hillary's remarks are not, as Bill suggests, that racial justice activists want to characterize dangerous criminals as nice people who got an unfair rap. The criticism is that the word she used to describe dangerous criminals — "superpredators" — was based on faulty research and pushed policies that helped drive an increase in incarceration that disproportionately hurt black people.

So Bill's comments fail to get at the actual criticism of policies both he and Hillary supported, and actually invoke some of the same tough-on-crime rhetoric of the '90s that protesters criticized. For justice reformers, this seems to validate one of the biggest concerns they have about a President Hillary Clinton.

Superpredators didn't exist

Let's start with the biggest problem: Superpredators didn't exist. The type of criminal Clinton was describing came from faulty research that's been repeatedly debunked — and even the biggest proponent of the superpredators myth has since apologized for spreading the idea.

Clyde Haberman reported in the New York Times:

No one in the mid-1990s promoted this theory with greater zeal, or with broader acceptance, than John J. DiIulio Jr., then a political scientist at Princeton. Chaos was upon us, Mr. DiIulio proclaimed back then in scholarly articles and television interviews. The demographics, he said, were inexorable. Politicians from both major parties, though more so on the right, picked up the cry. Many news organizations pounced on these sensational predictions and ran with them like a punt returner finding daylight.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of exploding, violence by children sharply declined. Murders committed by those ages 10 to 17 fell by roughly two-thirds from 1994 to 2011, according to statistics kept by the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Mugged by reality, a chastened Mr. DiIulio has offered a mea culpa. "Demography," he says, "is not fate." The trouble with his superpredator forecast, he told Retro Report, is that "once it was out there, there was no reeling it in."

Politicians used the myth of superpredators to promote mass incarceration

Nonetheless, the myth was used to push tough-on-crime policies that helped lead to a rise in incarceration. Again, Haberman explained:

It certainly had consequences. It energized a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults. (New York had such a law even earlier, and it is now being applied to Kahton Anderson.) Many hundreds of juveniles were sent to prison for life, though in the last few years the United States Supreme Court has ruled that such sentences must not be automatic, even in murder cases. Individual circumstances and possible mitigating factors should be weighed, the justices said.

Hillary used the idea to promote her husband's tough-on-crime policies while he was president. She said in 1996, "It's not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."

Hillary was tapping into the sentiment that criminals have to be harshly punished for crime — a sentiment that was very powerful in America, including black communities, after decades of rises in violent crime. It was the same sentiment that led Bill to sign a law in 1994 that helped continue — but didn't cause — mass incarceration.

Hillary and Bill have both apologized for the 1994 law. And Hillary has said she regrets her superpredator comments. But these apologies are widely seen as insufficient for many racial justice advocates and criminal justice reformers, who worry that the politically opportunistic Clintons would simply fall back on the same kind of rhetoric if crime were to rise once again in America. And with this view already out there, comments like Bill's make the Clintons' apologies feel all the weaker.

The Clintons' remarks about superpredators cast doubt on how they'd handle a future crime wave

Bill Clinton. Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Over the past few years, America has seen an unusual bipartisan push for criminal justice reform to draw down mass incarceration. One reason for the shift toward reform is that mass incarceration is very expensive, and the research shows it's not even an effective way to fight crime anymore. But another reason is that crime has simply been dropping for decades, reducing the need for politicians to appear tough on crime.

But what happens if crime goes up again in the future? Some politicians may change their tune again, going back to the old tough-on-crime rhetoric to appear strong and, perhaps, because they see punitive policies as the right solution to high crime.

The worry for racial justice advocates and criminal justice reformers is the Clintons — who, let's face it, are known as politically opportunistic — will be among the politicians to go from reform-friendly to tough-on-crime.

The context here is not just Clinton's "superpredators" remarks or even just the 1994 crime law. It's that the Clintons were very much cognizant of fears of black crime in the 1990s, and they exploited it in their presidential campaigns. Just take a look at this picture of Bill in 1992, during a press conference in Stone Mountain, Georgia:

Bill's comments at Thursday's press conference speak to this kind of politicking: He was ready with off-the-cuff remarks to condemn criminals harshly — to defend comments his wife made to justify policies that perpetuated mass incarceration. When it was politically opportune, Bill had no problem switching back to the tough-on-crime mode.

It's fair to argue that the '90s were different times, with much higher crime rates than we have today, which called for desperate measures. Hillary is also (obviously) a different person than her husband, and it's possible that what he said doesn't reflect on her views at all. (After all, Hillary already said she regrets the superpredator remarks.)

But because the Clintons are partners and have a history of jointly supporting tough-on-crime policies, there's genuine concern about how a Clinton White House would react to another crime wave. What if the 2020s look like the 1990s in terms of crime, instead of the 2010s? Would a President Clinton still push for criminal justice reform? Based on the Clintons' history, there's reason for doubt — and Bill's comments did nothing to assuage those concerns.

Watch: The racism of the criminal justice system