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The Overlooked Promise in Hillary Clinton’s Speech

A call for criminal justice reform.

To the casual observer, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic convention speech might seem like a classic of the genre. Like President Obama, she called for unity in the face of national challenges. Like President George W. Bush, she promised a strong middle class and expanded economic opportunity.

But in a single brief sentence, Clinton broke one of America’s oldest political taboos, pledging to “reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

This might seem like an offhand mention, or just another Democratic candidate embracing the latest civil rights issue. But past candidates, when they talked about criminal justice at all, were quick to declare a “war on crime,” and slow to acknowledge any real problems in the system.

Clinton’s speech represents a real break with that legacy — and voters are entitled to demand real solutions to match her call to action.

Scour the acceptance speeches of presidential nominees, liberal and conservative, and you can’t miss the common thread that Clinton has broken.

With his 1988 acceptance speech, Michael Dukakis became the first Democratic nominee to call for a “war on drugs” (“a real war and not a phony war,” he said) — but he was not the last. Bill Clinton pledged to help “people on the front line to wage that war on drugs” in his 1992 address. Four years later, he announced his administration had “made ‘three-strike and you’re out’ the law of the land,” part of the punitive sentencing that would help pack the nation’s prisons. And in 2000, Al Gore lauded as a success that under his leadership as vice president, “we passed the toughest crime bill in history.”

Republican nominees were no different. Speaking in 1968, President Richard Nixon said, “let us have order in America.” “The first civil right of every American,” he continued, referencing a campaign ad filled with scenes of blood, protest, and gunfire, “is to be free from domestic violence, and that right must be guaranteed in this country.” Four years later, Nixon praised his administration’s “all-out offensive against crime, against narcotics, against permissiveness in our country.”

This theme — crime is rampant, and I can keep you safe — continued through the decades, with George H. W. Bush praising the death penalty and tough-on-crime legislation. “I’m the one,” he said in 1988, “who believes it is a scandal to give a weekend furlough to a hardened, first-degree killer.” He referred, of course, to his campaign’s notorious Willie Horton ad, which used the menace of violent crime, shaded by race, to scare a generation of lawmakers away from criminal justice reform. “Clinton and Congress don’t want to close legal loopholes and keep criminals behind bars,” Bush reminded the 1992 RNC. “But I will.” Even Bob Dole, a relatively moderate Republican, as the 1996 nominee praised the elimination of federal parole, a “reform” that contributed to mass incarceration and may not even decrease crime.

Between 1968 and 2000, the two parties agreed on one thing — fighting crime meant more and harsher incarceration. That 40-year consensus stood undisturbed by President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 acceptance speeches, neither of which made any mention of criminal justice policy.

And the week before Clinton’s speech, Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a speech that invoked tradition by vowing to be a “law-and-order president,” and telling Americans that crime is rising, despite facts to the contrary. (He made no mention of the call for reform embodied in his party’s platform.)

So for advocates of reform it was a refreshing novelty when Clinton proclaimed that the excesses of system itself are the problem, and later in her speech when she returned to the theme. “Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women,” she said, “who face the effects of systemic racism, and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”

To be sure, Clinton’s speech may leave voters and advocates wondering what “reform our criminal justice system” would mean in practice — and how a president can accomplish those goals when most prisons, courts and law enforcement are under control of the states.

Clinton has proposed several small-scale policy changes, such as ending the use of private prisons and diverting low-level drug offenders to treatment programs. These are important reforms, but they only tackle part of the problem. And while Clinton has also called for “cutting mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in half,” there are several ways to accomplish that goal, and we look forward to hearing her plans toward that end.

Both candidates should offer clear answers on how they will tackle criminal justice reform — a priority issue in both parties’ platforms. They can start with calling for laws to safely reduce the federal prison population. That means prioritizing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bipartisan bill that would cut mandatory minimums in some cases. Republicans championed the bill, with Democratic support, but it still managed to stall in the Senate. The next president should resurrect it and get it across the finish line.

A bolder stroke, and one that would reduce incarceration nationwide, would be to push for a modern-day “crime bill” to direct federal funds to states that manage to reduce both crime and incarceration, together. In this way, the next president can use Washington’s power of the purse to affect state policy and bring about a welcome break from decades long federal subsidization of mass incarceration. Clinton has long-since acknowledged the harmful incentives created by the “1994 Crime Bill,” which paid states $9 billion to build prisons and lengthen sentences. Even former President Bill Clinton now says that this and other 1990s era laws “were overly broad” and “overshot the mark.”

As the leader of the free world, the president can use his or her voice and power to call the nation to action. In that vein, the next president should issue a call to states to end the overuse of incarceration for nonviolent crimes and to cut their mandatory minimum sentences by half, and introduce legislation in Congress so the federal government does the same.

Clinton’s address to the convention is part of a remarkable year for reformers. The goal of ending mass incarceration — once spurned, then relegated to the sidelines — is now front-and-center. With real solutions, that goal may even be achievable.

Ames C. Grawert is John L. Neu Justice Counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.