Now Hillary Clinton Cares About Criminal Justice Reform


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In what MSNBC is calling "her strongest comments yet this year on criminal justice", former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in on the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases Thursday, calling for grappling with "hard truths" and restoring "balance" to a criminal justice system rife with "unnecessary incarceration". 

I'll pause for a moment to let you roll your eyes.

Clinton's laments ring a little false, considering her history on criminal justice issues. Here's Clinton in 1994:

We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The three strikes and you're out for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.

As First Lady, Clinton lobbied for her husband's crime bill, which (among other things) encouraged states to enact harsher sentencing statutes and expanded the list of crimes subject to the federal death penalty. In 2001, Clinton co-sponsored a bill to provide more funding and stricter sentencing for hate crimes. In her 2006 book It Takes a Village, Clinton praised stricter punishments for people charged with sex crimes.

In 2007, she voted to reinstate $1.15 billion in funding for the COPS Program, a police funding initiative launched by the crime bill. Clinton also co-sponsored the COPS Improvements Act of 2007, which amended existing grants for community policing programs to hire more officers on anti-terror and homeland security duties, hire more school-based police officers, and create "school-based partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and local school systems to combat crime, gangs, drug activities, and other problems facing elementary and secondary schools". (We've seen how well that last bit works out.) 

Obviously, people's policy prescriptions can evolve. Clinton's had 20 years of watching tough-on-crime policies play out, and at least she's able to admit that mistakes were made. In 2007, Clinton told the Iowa Brown & Black Presidential Forum that the results of the crime bill "have been an unacceptable increase in incarceration across the board" that needs to be addressed:

At the time, there were reasons why the Congress wanted to push through a certain set of penalties and increase prison construction and there was a lot of support for that across a lot of communities. It's hard to remember now but the crime rate in the early 1990s was very high. But we've got to take stock now of the consequences, so that's why I want to have a thorough review of all of the penalties, of all the kinds of sentencing, and more importantly start having more diversion and having more second chance programs.

Despite statements like that on the campaign trail, however, Clinton did not introduce or rally behind any legislation to this effect during her remaining U.S. Senate tenure.

Maybe I'm reading too much into that support comment, but it seems telling. In 1994, tough-on-crime was popular, and the Clintons obliged. Now that sentencing reform and reducing prison populations is all the rage, well… here's Clinton at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston yesterday: 

Each of us has to grapple with some hard truths about race and justice in America. Because despite all the progress we've made together, African Americans, most particularly African-American men, are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms.

(…) 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. Now, that is not because Americans are more violent or criminal than others around the world; in fact that is far from the facts. But it is because we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance. And I personally hope that these tragedies give us the opportunity to come together as a nation to find our balance again.

This was the first time Clinton has spoken following the recent findings of grand juries not to indict an NYPD officer in the chokehold death of Garner or to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Brown. She told the audience she's supports a Justice Department investigation into these deaths and President Obama's task force on policing.