On Wednesday, Bill Clinton conceded that the era of “mass incarceration” — which Hillary Clinton vowed to “end” in a speech just last week — can be traced back to the policies of his presidency. In an apparent effort to get out ahead of any political liability stemming from the prison boom of the last few decades, he acknowledged that “any policy that was adopted while I was president, in federal law, that contributed to [prison overpopulation ], should be changed.”
However, the former president sidestepped direct responsibility. In reflecting on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a signature achievement of his administration and a major contributor to mass incarceration, Clinton instead placed the blame with Republicans. At the time, he said, he just “wanted to pass a bill,” and “went along with” what congressional Republicans wanted.
For her part, Hillary Clinton now faces the task of continuing to separate herself from the legacy of her husband’s crime bill, and of clarifying her changing positions on criminal justice issues over four decades.
In her first speech on the issue since launching her campaign for president, Hillary Clinton discussed criminal justice as though it were relatively new to her. “I don’t know all the answers,” she said, asking the audience to “start thinking this through with me.”
But Hillary Clinton has a long and winding history on the subject of criminal justice.
Much of the coverage of Clinton’s remarks has centered on the fact that the views she expressed – including an avowal to “end the era of mass incarceration” – seem to clash with the policies of her husband, who signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
By this logic, Hillary Clinton will need to live down the Bill Clinton legacy: Harsher sentencing guidelines; $9.7 billion in new funding for the construction of prisons; $10.8 billion for 100,000 new police officers; more federal crimes punishable by the death penalty; the end of higher-education grants for prisoners; the exclusion of drug offenders from food stamps and welfare; encouragement to states to try more children as adults; the distribution of surplus military equipment to local police departments; and time limits on death-penalty appeals. On his watch, the American prison population increased by more than 673,000 inmates in just eight years.
But Hillary is not Bill, and her history on these issues is more nuanced than simply cheerleading for her husband’s “tough on crime” approach. It is the story of a Barry Goldwater supporter who became a fighter for prisoners on death row who became a tough-on-crime First Lady who became a senator with a very mixed record who is now embracing the language of reform without yet offering much in the way of concrete proposals – apart from a largely uncontroversial suggestion that all police officers be equipped with body cameras.
Whether this represents evolution or expediency or some of each, we’ll let you decide. Below, a rundown of almost half a century of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rhetoric, activism, policy positions, and changes of heart on the subject of criminal justice.
1971: Hillary Rodham takes a summer job at a left-leaning law firm in Berkeley, Calif. There, she joins a team that is busy helping Huey Newton – the leader of the Black Panthers, who stands accused of murdering an Oakland police officer – win a series of mistrials and the dismissal of all charges.
1973: At one of Rodham’s next jobs, with the Children’s Defense Fund, she studies the “problem” of juveniles incarcerated in adult jails.
Mid-1970s: Rodham learns in Arkansas that “our criminal-justice system can be stacked against those who have the least power and are the most vulnerable.”
1976: Now Hillary Clinton, she becomes the director of the legal aid clinic (and a professor of criminal law) at the University of Arkansas. There, she spearheads a project to bring legal representation to inmates at Cummins Farm, one of the worst prisons in the state. In one case, she and her team file a 64-page amicus brief on behalf of Henry Giles1, a mentally-impaired black man who was sentenced to death by an all-white jury.
But, in the first indication that she might be subordinating her career to Bill’s, Hillary keeps her name off of the brief – in part because her husband is running for attorney general of Arkansas.
Late 1970s: After famously debating whether or not to defend a rapist, Hillary Clinton decides that it is her duty to do so – and she aggressively wins her client a plea deal.
In the aftermath of that case, Hillary Clinton fights for legislation that would require judges to approve evidence of a rape victim’s previous sexual conduct before it could be presented to the jury. Meanwhile, she establishes the first-ever rape crisis hotline2 in Arkansas, and leads an educational campaign about sexual violence against women.
1978-1980: During his first term as governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton commutes the sentences of 76 inmates3 in two years.
1980: Bill Clinton is hammered as “soft on crime” by Republican opponent Frank White, and loses his reelection bid. He vows to become a “new” Democrat, one who would never again be attacked for his leniency.
1982-1992: After he is re-elected governor, Clinton tells Arkansans he has learned his lesson, and commutes only eight sentences in ten years. He also oversees four executions – the first four in the state of Arkansas since 1964.
Meanwhile: Hillary Clinton remains publicly silent on criminal justice issues. But according to her spiritual mentor, Don Jones4, she “agonized”5 over her husband’s embrace of capital punishment. Jones advised her, “I believe there is such a thing as punitive justice,” and Hillary responded, “Well, I think I agree with you.”
1992: Bill Clinton flies back to Arkansas from New Hampshire, where he has been campaigning for president, to personally oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, an African-American man who is so mentally incapacitated that he asks that his final dessert be served “tomorrow.”
1994: As First Lady, her days of defending those accused of rape and murder now long behind her, Clinton actively lobbies for the passage of The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
Annual “Women in Policing” Awards, Aug. 10, 1994: “There is something wrong when a crime bill takes six years to work its way through Congress and the average criminal serves only four…. We need more police. We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets…. We will be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders — three strikes and you’re out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door.”
C-SPAN interview, Aug. 15, 1994: “It’s a very well-thought-out crime bill that is both smart and tough. And I think Americans are gonna say, why these political games? And we will eventually get a good crime bill like the President has proposed.”
1996: In her book, “It Takes a Village,” Clinton again endorses the crime bill, and argues in favor of “zero-tolerance” policies for kids who break the rules at school.
Elsewhere in the book, Clinton delivers hardline rhetoric on the physical and sexual abuse of children. “Whatever the reasons for the apparent increase,” she writes, “it demands our intervention. We should start with strong, unambivalent criminal prosecution of perpetrators.”
But in the notes at the end of the book, she concedes that she is responding not to a rise in these offenses but to a rise in public fears. “Over the last several years, there has been a dramatic increase in media stories of abducted and abused children,” she wrote. “While there has not been an increase in the overall number of such cases, many families, and children, are more fearful.”
1998: Clinton pens a column in which she begins to shift – ever so slightly – back toward a more reformist position on criminal justice. In it, she picks and chooses from the crime bill’s legacy, emphasizing the gun-control measures, prevention programs for juveniles, and funding for more police officers, without mentioning the law’s contributions to mass incarceration.
2000: Clinton suggests that the death penalty has her “unenthusiastic support,” a vague stance that she has never clarified.
As Senator, she is largely uninvolved in criminal justice debates and introduces no new legislation. However, she is one of many co-sponsors on a number of failed bills.
2001: Although she supports capital punishment in principle, Clinton co-sponsors the Innocence Protection Act, a bill designed to reduce the chance – in part through additional opportunities for DNA testing – that an innocent person gets executed.
2001: Clinton co-sponsors legislation that would create more tracking and harsher sentences for hate crimes.
2003: Clinton says she “pushed for” the PROTECT Act, which increases the penalties for certain sex offenses and allows the federal government to supervise sex offenders for “any term of years or life.”
2007: Clinton votes “Yes” to reinstate her husband’s COPS initiative, a program for putting hundreds of thousands more police officers on the streets, to full $1.15 billion funding. She also co-sponsors the COPS Improvement Act, which would direct grant money toward the hiring of more anti-terror, anti-gang, and school-based police officers.
2007: While running for president, Clinton co-sponsors legislation to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, as well as a bill to lower recidivism by investing in drug-treatment and reentry programs.
Democratic Primary Debate at Howard University, Jun. 28, 2007: “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. We need to make sure that we do deal with the distinction between crack and powder cocaine. And ultimately we need...a system of justice that truly does treat people equally.”
Iowa Black & Brown Presidential Forum, Dec. 1, 2007: Finally addressing her support of the 1994 crime bill, Clinton says: “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.”
Jan. 4, 2008: Despite her own apparent evolution, candidate Clinton plays the “soft on crime” card. Her aides suggest to ABC News that President Obama’s positions on criminal justice – including his opposition to mandatory-minimum sentences – are too liberal and out-of-touch with mainstream views.
This Wednesday: In her apparent coming-out speech on criminal justice, Clinton expresses forceful criticism of mandatory-minimum sentences and the militarization of police, both of which date to her husband’s time in office.
“Measures that I and so many others have championed, to reform arbitrary mandatory-minimum sentences, are long overdue…. We can [make sure] that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.”
And she concludes:
“It's time to change our approach. It's time to end the era of mass incarceration.”