Fallout Not Likely From Hillary Clinton's Stance on Over-Incarceration

Radley Balko effectively takes a few Washington Post columnists to task for their articles criticizing Hillary Clinton's recent statements on our unjust mass incarceration policies. His article, also in the Washington Post, is titled "This isn’t 1968. Baltimore isn’t Watts. And Hillary Clinton isn’t Michael Dukakis." He writes:

Both [columnists]compared the civil unrest of 2015 to the civil unrest in 1968. Both cited Nixon’s “tough on crime” campaign, which even members of that campaign team have since admitted was an overt, often racist appeal to white fear of black people. Both scorned Clinton for being “soft on crime,” and daring to criticize mass incarceration in a speech given the same week as the riots. Both mentioned New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and his shift in tone from gently criticizing the New York City police department for excessive force after the death of Eric Garner to robustly defending the officers after they were accused of roughing people up at a recent protest.


Radley writes it's unlikely there will be fallout for Hillary's statements:

It’s far from clear that voters will punish Hillary Clinton for criticizing mass incarceration, or expressing support for body cameras. It’s far from clear that voters even disagree with her. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that taking the positions she did will make her the next Michael Dukakis. Clinton is a shrewd politician who is being advised by the party’s elite campaign operatives. The very fact that she broached criminal justice reform is a pretty good indication that it’s now politically safe for her to do so.

One item in Radley's article I take issue with. He writes:

But the premise of both columns is also wrong. Ask any leader in the criminal justice reform movement if they consider Hillary Clinton to be an ally. After a bout of laughter, they’ll likely point out that she criticized Barack Obama in 2008 for his support to reform mandatory minimum laws and to change the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

In 2008, I compared Obama and Hillary on crime issues, citing an interview with Hillary in Vibe Magazine (link to interview now dead) and their June, 2007 debate at Drexel University. First, the debate. Hillary said:

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.

Obama was much weaker on the crack powder disparity issue at that debate:

"Even if we fix this, if it was a 1-to-1 ratio, it's still a problem that folks are selling crack. It's still a problem that our young men are in a situation where they believe the only recourse for them is the drug trade. So there is a balancing act that has to be done in terms of, do we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue that doesn't get at some of the underlying issues; whether we want to spend more of that political capital getting early childhood education in place, getting after-school programs in place, getting summer school programs in place."

Obama also said:

He said that if he were to become president, he would support a commission to issue a report "that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it's unfair and unjust. Then I would move legislation forward."

Of course, by 2007, we had already had numerous reports finding just that.

Where Hillary and Obama differed in 2007-8 was on whether the crack-powder reduction should be retroactive. Hillary (unfortunately) did not support retroactivity. She did sign on as a co-sponsor of a bill (S. 1711) by crime warrior Joe Biden to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. But Biden's bill prohibited retroactivity. On the other hand, at least it provided for a 1:1 ratio for powder and crack with no raising of penalties for powder offenses, and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum prison term for first-time possession of crack cocaine. (The law passed under Obama only reduced the ratio to 18:1, where it remains today.)

In the 2008 interview in Vibe Magazine, Hillary said:

Number one, we need to divert more people from the prison system. We have too many people in prison for non-violent drug offenses, which disproportionately impacts on the African-American community. That’s why I’ve been a strong advocate of eliminating the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine [sentencing].

There may have been a reason for it 25 years ago but there isn’t any justification for it now. But it also means that in the prisons themselves, we’ve got to get back to the services that used to be there

On the need for more prison programs to help offenders, Hillary told Vibe:

They have mostly been eliminated — GED programs, college credit programs, drug and alcohol abuse programs — I mean, it is like a wasteland. We put too many people in there and then we basically forget about them. And then when people come out we need a system of second-chance programs. And we need to move to restore people’s rights. They need to feel like they’ve done whatever time they’re supposed to do and now they are back as a full participant. So we need a network of job-training programs, of housing programs, of civic engagement and education programs.

And there are some good examples around. The Fortune Society in New York does a really good job. Other places like Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY that hires ex-offenders and trains them. We can do this on a larger scale than what we’re doing now. And a lot of the job training programs we used to have in this country, which has been decimated, need to be brought back so we can, as I have argued, put people to work in green collar jobs. We should be training people; we should be doing that in the prisons. We should be giving people skills that are going to be part of the economy of the future.

I don't think Hillary is, as Radley writes, a "Johnny come Lately" on these positions. Nor do I think there was much difference between her and Obama in 2008. My assessment of Obama's record on defendants' rights in 2007 is here.

Here's a comparison of Obama and Hillary on progressive issues in general. For Obama's record as U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, see my prior posts:

The bottom line is this: Democrats have not been progressive on crime issues, but Republicans are always worse.

That said, I agree with Radley that we need specifics from Hillary. Just two examples: I'd like to see Hillary come out in favor of a bill increasing eligibility for the safety valve exception to mandatory minimums to those in Criminal History II (not just those with two points instead of one point) and increasing federal good time for prisoners.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Paul Tsongas was right (none / 0) (#1)
    by thomas rogan on Thu May 07, 2015 at 08:33:52 PM EST
    He hit it on the head when he called Bill Clinton a "pander bear".

    A pol? Pandering? (none / 0) (#2)
    by Yman on Sat May 09, 2015 at 09:34:45 AM EST
    No way.