Hillary Clinton Calls for 'Real Reforms' to 'End the Era of Mass Incarceration' but Does Not Specify Any

"I don't know all the answers," the presumptive Democratic nominee confesses.


Columbia University

In what was billed as "a major speech on criminal justice reform" today, Hillary Clinton added little of substance to the vacuous essay I discussed yesterday, which she quoted at length. Speaking at Columbia University, Clinton said several true things: The use of unnecessary force by police is bad, but so is looting and rioting. Our "out-of-balance" criminal justice system punishes people too harshly, imprisons too many "low-level offenders," and disproportionately hurts black men. As Clinton noted, there is by now bipartisan agreement on these points. "It is not enough just to agree and give speeches about it," she said. "We need to deliver real reforms."

Such as? The one new and specific reform Clinton recommended was equipping police officers with body cameras, which she called "a common-sense step." She also reiterated her support for "alternative punishments," "specialized drug courts," and "drug diversion programs." Body cameras are a good idea with broad support. I am less keen on forcing people into "treatment" they do not want by threatening to lock them in cages. I would tell you what I think about Clinton's other ideas if she had offered any.

"It's time to change our approach," Clinton said. "It's time to end the era of mass incarceration." I agree. Presumably the solution involves 1) locking fewer people up, 2) imposing shorter sentences, and 3) letting current prisoners out. But Clinton did not move beyond platitudes on any of those points. "I don't know all the answers," she confessed.

Clinton did mention, as she did in her essay, that as a senator she supported shorter crack sentences. Congress approved those almost unanimously in 2010 but did not make them retroactive. So here is a specific reform that Clinton logically should support: allow currently imprisoned crack offenders to seek new sentences under the current rules, thereby reducing penalties that pretty much everyone now agrees are unjust.

That reform, which could help thousands of federal prisoners and should be a no-brainer for Clinton, is part of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was reintroduced in February by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). The bill's 12 cosponsors include four Republicans, two of whom, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are vying to oppose Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in next year's presidential election. The House version of the bill was introduced by a Republican and has 30 cosponsors, including seven Republicans. In addition to making shorter crack sentences retroactive, the bill would cut mandatory minimums for various drug offenses in half, eliminate the mandatory life sentence for a third drug offense, and expand the "safety valve" for low-level, nonviolent offenders.

Is this the sort of bipartisan reform Clinton has in mind? What about the Justice Safety Valve Act, a more ambitious bill sponsored by Paul that would effectively repeal mandatory minimums by allowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice? Is that too radical for Clinton? If so, why?

Congress is considering several other specific reforms backed by members of both major parties, such as limits on civil forfeiture, restoration of voting rights for nonviolent felons, and expungement of criminal records to facilitate employment and reintegration. Where, if anywhere, does Clinton stand on those proposals?

As she did in her essay, Clinton said the right words about our excessively punitive criminal justice system but suggested almost no specific solutions. She is late to this party, and endorsing reforms backed by Republicans such as Paul and Cruz would highlight that fact. (She runs that risk even by endorsing police body cameras, which a bill cosponsored by Paul would subsidize.) But the truth is that Clinton has shown little interest in the subject over the years.

Worse, when her husband was president, Clinton was a cheerleader for the "tough on crime" policies that gave us "mass incarceration," as Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted here last December. "We need more police," the first lady said in a 1994 speech. "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." The Clinton administration gave us all that and more, bragging about building more prisons and locking up more people (including nonviolent offenders) for longer stretches. 

Might those policies have something to do with overincarceration? The last time she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton conceded that they did. She did not broach the subject during today's speech. But you can't "end the era of mass incarceration" without reversing the policies that produced it, even if you used to be an avid supporter of those policies.

You can read Clinton's speech here.