Hillary Announces Plan to Revamp Criminal Justice Policy

Hillary Clinton today announced a plan to revamp criminal justice policy and end the focus on mass incarceration ad draconian sentences, policies favored during the Bill Clinton administration.

Clinton unveiled a sweeping set of proposed criminal justice reforms that would dismantle much of what her husband did. .. Whereas Bill looked to lock up offenders and throw away the key, Hillary is seeking to “end mass incarceration.” His focus was on resources for law enforcement; hers is on transparency meant to protect suspects.

Bill promoted zero tolerance, while Hillary is inclined to lend a second chance. “Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime, but it does a lot to tear apart families,” she said of children guilty of nonviolent offenses.


First, I think it's great that she chose criminal justice reform for her first major policy address.

Second, the media is overlooking that Bill Clinton himself has said he regrets the draconian sentencing policies of his administration. How do I know this? I asked him directly in 2006. I remember beginning my question with "Are you sorry now" that so many mandatory minimum sentences and other harsh policies came in during his administration. I remember his answer began with, "You know, I kind of am" and then proceeded to say why.

My point is that it's not only Hillary that is repudiating the overly harsh, ill-advised policies of the Clinton administration -- Bill Clinton acknowledged almost a decade ago they were misguided.

Let's also not forget who takes credit for spearheading many of the worst bills through Congress during the Clinton Administration: Joe Biden.

Hillary Clinton today (from the text of her speech)

It's a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world's total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.

Of the more than 2 million Americans incarcerated today, a significant percentage are low-level offenders: people held for violating parole or minor drug crimes, or who are simply awaiting trial in backlogged courts.

Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime. But it is does a lot to tear apart families and communities.

One in every 28 children now has a parent in prison. Think about what that means for those children.

When we talk about one and a half million missing African American men, we're talking about missing husbands, missing fathers, missing brothers.

They're not there to look after their children or bring home a paycheck. And the consequences are profound.

Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty.

And it's not just families trying to stay afloat with one parent behind bars. Of the 600,000 prisoners who reenter society each year, roughly 60 percent face long-term unemployment.

And for all this, taxpayers are paying about $80 billion a year to keep so many people in prison.

The price of incarcerating a single inmate is often more than $30,000 per year—and up to $60,000 in some states. That's the salary of a teacher or police officer.

One year in a New Jersey state prison costs $44,000—more than the annual tuition at Princeton.
If the United States brought our correctional expenditures back in line with where they were several decades ago, we'd save an estimated $28 billion a year. And I believe we would not be less safe. You can pay a lot of police officers and nurses and others with $28 billion to help us deal with the pipeline issues.

It's time to change our approach. It's time to end the era of mass incarceration. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.

I don't know all the answers. That's why I'm here—to ask all the smart people in Columbia and New York to start thinking this through with me. I know we should work together to pursue together to pursue alternative punishments for low-level offenders. They do have to be in some way registered in the criminal justice system, but we don't want that to be a fast track to long-term criminal activity, we don't want to create another "incarceration generation."

I've been encouraged to see changes that I supported as Senator to reduce the unjust federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes finally become law.

And last year, the Sentencing Commission reduced recommended prison terms for some drug crimes.

...There are other measures that I and so many others have championed to reform arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences are long overdue.

We also need probation and drug diversion programs to deal swiftly with violations, while allowing low-level offenders who stay clean and stay out of trouble to stay out of prison. I've seen the positive effects of specialized drug courts and juvenile programs work to the betterment of individuals and communities. And please, please, let us put mental health back at the top of our national agenda.

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. Well, we got half of that equation—but not the other half. Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions.

I have to tell you I was somewhat surprised in both Iowa and New Hampshire to be asked so many questions about mental health. "What are we going to do with people who need help for substance abuse or mental illness?" "What are we going to do when the remaining facilities are being shut down for budget reasons?" "What are we going to do when hospitals don't really get reimbursed for providing the kind of emergency care that is needed for mental health patients?"

It's not just a problem in our cities. There's a quiet epidemic of substance abuse sweeping small-town and rural America as well. We have to do more and finally get serious about treatment.

I'll be talking about all of this in the months to come, offering new solutions to protect and strengthen our families and communities.

This isn't Hillary's first criticism of draconian sentencing. In 2008, I compared her and Obama's records on criminal justice. Both she and Obama co-sponsored the Second Chance Act. I also noted that at their third debate at Howard University, she said:

We have to do all of these things. Number one, we do have to go after racial profiling. I’ve supported legislation to try to tackle that.

Number two, we have to go after mandatory minimums. You know, mandatory sentences for certain violent crimes may be appropriate, but it has been too widely used. And it is using now a discriminatory impact.

Three, we need diversion, like drug courts. Non-violent offenders should not be serving hard time in our prisons. They need to be diverted from our prison system. (Applause.)

We need to make sure that we do deal with the distinction between crack and powder cocaine. And ultimately we need an attorney general and a system of justice that truly does treat people equally, and that has not happened under this administration.

The War on Drugs began with Richard Nixon. Mandatory minimum sentences came in under Ronald Reagan and continued under George Bush I -- and GW Bush. There's no monopoly on wrong headed thinking over the last four decades.

Instead of being skeptical about Hillary Clinton's motives, why don't we all just say "Thank you."

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    Thank you (5.00 / 4) (#1)
    by ruffian on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 04:21:40 PM EST
    To HRC for the policy announcement, and J for the post and reminder of the history.

    I'm glad for the willingness to acknowledge such an obvious failure, and try to do better.

    Overwhelming statistical evidence, (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by NYShooter on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 05:08:05 PM EST
    Never mind just plain common sense, people will behave in direct correlation to the manner by which they're treated.

    Treat them like vicious animals, they'll come accordingly.

    Treat them with a degree of dignity, and respect, they're behavior will tend to reciprocate.

    It's really that simple.

    "It's a stark fact" (none / 0) (#2)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 04:40:14 PM EST
    It's a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world's total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.

    I understand the correlation she was trying to express, but I think the figures she cited can also be used to make a 180 degree opposite correlation, ie, that crime is at historic lows because there are so many criminals in prison.

    Before the locusts descend, let me be clear that I don't make that correlation. I agree with her that we should take a good long look at our criminal justice system.

    Sometimes (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by sj on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 04:57:10 PM EST
    you just make me tired.

    that argument has been rebuffed (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 04:59:54 PM EST
    quite effectively as nothing more than a hunch, see Judge Rakoff's recent speech I wrote about here.

    The supposition on which our mass incarceration is premised - namely, that it materially reduces crime - is, at best, a hunch. Yet the price we pay for acting on this hunch is enormous. This is true in the literal sense: it costs more than $80 billion a year to run our jails and prisons. It is also true in the social sense: by locking up so many young men, most of them men of color, we contribute to the erosion of family and community life in ways that harm generations of children, while creating a future cadre of unemployable ex-cons, many of who have learned in prison how better to commit future crimes. And it is even true in the symbolic sense: by locking up, sooner or later, one out of every three African-American males, we send a message that our society has no better cure for racial disparities than brute force.

    The full text of his speech discussing the various studies is here.


    is proven, or justified, or whatever.

    It is that anyone who does not agree with her position can quickly use her own numbers against her position. iow, she might find it more effective to find some other way to express this, or something.


    Not a locust or (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by KeysDan on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 05:23:10 PM EST
    locust wannabe, but Mrs. Clinton's expression regarding the fact of prison population and the fact of crime statistics, is a relationship that could fairly be characterized as a correlation.  Meaning that  there is some statistical relationship between the two variables. And, if the variables are strongly linked, it could be described as  a high degree of correlation.  

    Of course, correlation does not imply causation--there are more people in prison and, hence, these same prisoners are not on the streets to commit crimes.  A cause and effect relationship is not what Mrs. Clinton seems to be suggesting.


    Fair enough. (none / 0) (#9)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 06:41:01 PM EST
    My point is that of the 99.99% of the voting population that is not aware of Judge Rakoff's recent speech, a substantial number may take her numbers the wrong way.

    The authors of Freakanomics contend (none / 0) (#22)
    by Mr Natural on Fri May 01, 2015 at 06:03:05 AM EST
    that crime rates dropped because availability of abortion prevented millions of unwanted births in groups that couldn't afford more mouths to feed.  

    Of course, even if Clinton (Rodham) has read the book she can't go near these twinned issues.


    The (none / 0) (#23)
    by FlJoe on Fri May 01, 2015 at 06:41:07 AM EST
    theory on the role of lead pollution sounds like a better explanation. Maybe the availability of abortion slowed the growth of certain demographics by a degree but it certainly did not reverse it.

    Seems to Me... (none / 0) (#11)
    by ScottW714 on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 08:49:11 AM EST
    ...that could easily be proven/disproved by comparing convictions to crime stats.  If murder is down and more murderers are behind bars, there is probably a correlation.

    But considering violent crime is down and non-violent offenders are up, there most likely isn't much correlation related to certain types of crimes.  This is my opinion, and not sourced.  But when I read Indonesia kills non-violent drug trafficers, yet drugs are still prevalent in Indonesia, their doesn't seem to be much correlation between the law and the crime being committed.

    They could go through the most committed crimes and figure out which laws work and which ones don't, rather than lumping all crimes and stats together and making a very general comparison.  I would think, but do not know, that many laws are effective and many are not.  Keep the ones that work and redraft the ones that do not.

    But the problem is that certain ineffective laws are on the books because the public wants/wanted them, and it's going to be a hard sell to say locking up these folks it is not working, so let's stop doing it.  So more than anything Hillary is going to have to get the public on board, which judging by certain strata of the population so far, is going to be a herculean task, if not impossible.  

    Public opinion has to changer for the laws can IMO.


    Bill (none / 0) (#5)
    by FlJoe on Wed Apr 29, 2015 at 05:04:07 PM EST
    has apologized again
    admitting that changes in penal policy that happened largely under his watch put "too many people in prison and for too long" and "overshot the mark".
    looks that this might be big issue this cycle and Hillary is out front on it .

    Thanks (none / 0) (#10)
    by Ga6thDem on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 08:30:12 AM EST
    for writing this Jeralyn. Very informative.

    I don't know J... (none / 0) (#12)
    by kdog on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 08:57:05 AM EST
    we'd be foolish if we weren't at least a little skeptical.  Politicians will always follow the political wind during campaign season...and the wind is seriously blowing for police/prison/criminal justice reform and ending the drug war once and for all.

    Shouldn't we should save the thank you for after her term(s) and see where we're at on this vital human rights issue?  Now if the time to hold feet to the fire and demand promises be kept.

    I'll try harder to keep an open mind, but past wounds run pretty deep.

    Add.. (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by kdog on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 09:02:27 AM EST
    now especially is the time to pressure Obama, who as a lame duck is liberated from any electoral blowback.  Start the mass pardons post f*ckin' haste!  And reform more of the police/surveillance state policies that are under his direct control and discretion.

    Declaring (4.00 / 1) (#16)
    by FlJoe on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 10:05:56 AM EST
    an end to the "war on drugs" would be a huge step in the right direction.

    Indeed... (none / 0) (#17)
    by kdog on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 10:20:24 AM EST
    Hillary has the balls to propose that straight up, no caveats, it just might shut my arse up.

    Who am I kidding, I'd find a way to b*tch about President Abbie Hoffman;)


    Obama (none / 0) (#14)
    by Ga6thDem on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 09:21:47 AM EST
    is not going to do mass pardons. Bill Clinton did them and the GOP got mad.

    I'd hardly call... (none / 0) (#15)
    by kdog on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 10:01:46 AM EST
    around 500 souls a "mass pardon", but historically that sadly does qualify...I remember the criticism being more about some of the people who got them.  Marc Rich, Mel Reynolds.

    The pardons of former FALN and Weather Undergound members were cool though...I'm sure the GOPers hated those!

    Obama has been extremely stingy...I don't get it.  What better to say to stick to the haters by pardoning the sh*t outta the joint?  What better legacy could one wish for than freeing 10,000 souls and crushing FDR's record?  


    President Carter, on his (none / 0) (#18)
    by KeysDan on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 10:35:05 AM EST
    first day in office, granted unconditional pardons to hundreds of thousands of Vietnam era (August 4, 1964 - March 28, 1973) draft evaders, those fleeing the country or failing to register.

    The (none / 0) (#19)
    by KeysDan on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 10:37:33 AM EST
    Ah yes... (none / 0) (#21)
    by kdog on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 11:12:41 AM EST
    very good on Jimmy...I guess they don't count towards the "official" total since the majority where not prosecuted?  Wiki says FDR holds the record.

    A mass "pardon" (none / 0) (#20)
    by Reconstructionist on Thu Apr 30, 2015 at 10:59:17 AM EST
      is not gong to happen, and I would not even  support that.

      The pardoning power does though include the lesser power to  grant reprieves or "commute" sentences.

    "The President...shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

    Article II, Section 2, Clause 1

       A president who believed a class (or classes) of prisoners is  serving excessive sentences could (without any further review and no limit beyond reporting his action to Congress) reduce the sentences by an amount or percentage of time of all prisoners in the class (classes).

      For example, a President could reduce all sentences for (federal) drug offenders by 50% if he chose to do so.