Criminal Justice

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.

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  1. Ready for Hillary!

  2. Your lunch time derp:

    Balmer alderman Carl Stokes gets mad when CNN reporter refers to rioters as thugs; Stokes says just call them niggers.

    1. Yes, criticism of certain black criminals is the same as criticism of black people in general.

      Good thing he’s a Democrat or else we might think he’s racist!

  3. As Clinton noted, there is by now bipartisan agreement on these points.
    “You sure as Hell wouldn’t be hearing me talk about it if there weren’t,” she added.

    1. It’s a brave person who raises points already substantially agreed upon and makes them her own. Right in there with being “for” happiness.

  4. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”

    More solitary confinement!

  5. More government sponsered wealth transfers. With the bukl of the money ending in the pockets of politicans like her….

  6. They’re clearly trying to pull this issue out of Rand Paul’s hands and take credit for bringing it up in the first place. That’s the one thing that Democrats do really well – take ownership of issues that they had ignored for years, and/or that GOPers had brought to the fore.

    1. I think Paul helped them in doing so in his reaction. His explanation of root causes was a standard boilerplate conservative response that leaves out a lot of more relevant reasons, stuff that he’s talked about in the past, but IMO doesn’t want to bring up at the moment to avoid offending conservatives who will view it as anti-police and excusing the rioters.

      1. I don’t think there are more relevant reasons than family, I would surmise it’s the root cause of poverty, poor education, low employment, and crime. While that may not be popular, it’s at least more true and lends itself better to explaining why more money in schools, urban renewal, housing, gun laws and welfare programs have been ineffective, and counterproductive.

        1. You’ve just laid out why leftists will vehemently attack anyone who points to family. They may say it’s “racist” but what they really hate is it undermines their entire worldview of government can fix everything.

        2. I’m not saying that it has no impact, but there are definitely other reasons that impact those issues. There were riots in the 60s before the large breakdown in marriage rates and increase in out of wedlock births really made an impact. One can’t also talk about that issue without talking about the police and criminal justice system, the war on drugs, overcriminalization, etc. that exasperates the issue of absent fathers. Leftists aren’t great at determining some of the root causes of the issues you describe, and are even worse at offering solutions, but it doesn’t follow that conservatives in turn do a good job at those tasks, and it doesn’t mean that absent fathers is a catch-all explanation of all social ills, including decades/centuries of police abuse that is very directly relevant to causing this riot.

          1. Paul should be talking about force protection and rules of engagement, honestly.

            1. Has to win the primary first.

      2. In the context of public policy, root cause analysis is a largely irrelevant non-sequitur if for no other reason than that it is overly complex to be tracked and held accountable by the public in a democracy. Particularly in cases of public disorder, root cause analysis tends to be the dog chasing its own tail; avoiding the obvious, it instead suggests a wide number of changes and potential causes for unrest which cannot be realistically implemented as a wide program.

        It is more reasonable to find one large issue motivating the rioters and fix that issue effectively, than to find the 50+ “causes” secretly behind the discontent, none of which will be addressed effectively.

        1. I don’t necessarily disagree – but if there is one issue to be fixed, it wouldn’t be the one Paul references, as it’s both a less direct cause and harder to fix from a public policy perspective (and some of the solutions would be addressing other more direct underlying issues, such as criminal justice reforms that reduce incarceration for drug crimes and petty offenses).

      3. This is not one of the moments to stick to conservative boilerplate, IMO.
        Not on signature issues.

        1. I agree, but I at least understand why he’s doing it. It’s dangerous to talk about criminal justice and police reform as a Republican (or in many cases a Democrat, for that matter) in normal times, lest you be labeled as soft-on-crime, it’s even more dangerous to do so in the midst of a riot.

    2. Yeah, I noticed on NPR the other day they were all “look how surprising it is that the KOCH BROTHERS are supporting criminal justice reform!”

      Which is sort of WTF, considering that this wasn’t even on the map until Rand Paul started pushing it.

      1. Every time I hear about a prog with a kid I’m just going to say “Wow, I’m so surprised they have children, that’s so amazing about them, I always thought that they ate their young.”

  7. “I don’t know all the answers,” she confessed.


    1. No, no! Blue Ribbon Commissions and Czars!

      1. “Blue Ribbon” ? That’s the best kind !

        -Lenny of the Simpsons

  8. So she supports the criminal justice system in doing those good things that polls say people like, but she’s taking a courageous stand against those bad unpopular things that nobody likes.

    It’s the if-by-whiskey argument.


    1. “Abortions for everyone.” BOO! “Very well, abortions for no one.” BOO! “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for everyone.” YAY!

  9. “Good God, what do they expect me to do NOW?”

    “Well, Mrs. Clinton, they expect you to say something about criminal justice reform.”

    “Sure, give out a press release about putting more crooks behind bars, etc.”

    “Apparently, Mrs. Clinton, the thing now is to call for rolling back some of these excessive sentences.”

    “OK, put out some boilerplate about how I’m against excessive sentences, it’s all complicated, etc.”

    “Yes, Mrs. Clinton.”

  10. “We need a new approach,” Clinton said. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”

    OMG she’s so brave to tackle this and fight those icky republicans on this issue! This is why America needs Hillary! Rand wants to put all poor people in jail! KOCH!1!1!

    /Democratic Underground/Daily KOS/Team Derp

  11. She can support all kinds of things now that she’s not in any position to do anything about them.

  12. “It is not enough to agree and give speeches about it,” she said. “We need real reforms.”

    Giving. Speech. With. No. Suggested. Reforms.

    1. Dammit, Catatafish, she’s on a listening tour.

  13. From her focus group to God’s ears.

  14. Is this the bitch that laughed when asked about this very subject, swigged her scotch and said “That will never happen, there is too much money in it!”

    This is their nominee? How much worse can they get?

    1. And most voters neither know nor care.

  15. For one second, one second, I thought she was going to say end the WoDs. How foolish of me.

  16. She looks tired, and she sounds bored.

    1. It’s just going to get worse for her. The scandals aren’t going away, she’s got no policy ideas, and other Democrats are starting to enter the race. She’s a fish in a barrel until the primaries…nowhere to hide and nothing to distract people from all of her dirty laundry. She can’t even trot out a platform because she doesn’t have one.

      Nothing to look forward to but months of people asking her about those Russian kickbacks, deleted emails, and Benghazi.

  17. Yet she’s against Legalizing Cannibis

  18. Put on your wading boots, the bull siht is flowing already. She’s taking this right out of the Obama playbook. Pick a sore subject and “promise” to correct it. Lucky for her the majority of US voters are as stupid as a box of hammers. It seems the smart ones can’t be bothered wasting their time playing that stupid game.

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