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Clinton Wrong About Mass Incarceration Being Known Problem For Just A Decade

In Hillary Clinton’s meeting with the New York Daily News Editorial Board, she said mass incarceration was a “problem that slowly but steadily made itself known over the last ten, twelve years.” However, mass incarceration has been a known problem in the United States since at least the 1970s, when the prison population ballooned to hundreds of thousands of people.

Someone from the Daily News asked Clinton to define mass incarceration. The first part of the Democratic presidential candidate’s answer was the following:

I think the term refers to the over-incarceration of people for low-level offenses, non-violent offenses, often but not exclusively drug offenses. And I think it is a problem that slowly but steadily made itself known over the last 10, 12 years. And now I think it’s important to take a hard look at how we divert more people from the criminal justice system in the first place, how we acknowledge and deal with systemic racism, which has a lot to do with who ends up there, as opposed to a fair assessment of who should, and what we do for people coming out and how we do a better job of reconnecting them and preparing for them to live in society…

Clinton’s perception of mass incarceration is either terribly informed or she has concocted her own version of American history to suit her political agenda.

While people are certainly over-incarcerated for low-level and non-violent offenses, such offenses are not the sole driving forces of mass incarceration. A report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that roughly 40% of the 2.3 million people behind bars are there for violent offenses. 74% of the pretrial jail population faces charges other than for drugs.

Plus, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her book, “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” “Most experts chart the beginning of the phenomenon called ‘mass incarceration’ in the 1970s.” She notes, “In 1970, the American prison population, including those in state and federal facilities, was 196,429—as small as it had been since 1958—but by 1980 it had grown to 319,974, the largest number of Americans ever imprisoned.”

Mass incarceration was the result of expanding policing and “prison state” policies developed to control what was perceived as an “unruly” Black population in the United States.

In 1992, according to Devah Pager’s book, “Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work In an Era of Mass Incarceration,” the Justice Department released a report, “The Case For More Incarceration.” It argued the country needed longer and stricter sentences and more prisons. “Ask many politicians, newspaper editors, or criminal justice ‘experts’ about our prisons, and you will hear that our problem is that we put too many people in prison. The truth, however, is to the contrary: we are incarcerating too few criminals, and the public is suffering as a result.”

Pager’s book highlights, “In 1973, there were twenty-three state and federal prisoners in custody for every thousand index crimes reported; by 1998, this ratio had grown more than fourfold. The growth in incarceration far outpaced any corresponding growth in crime.”

Clinton has called for an end to the “era of mass incarceration” and acknowledged the 1994 crime bill signed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, helped fuel mass incarceration. Nevertheless, the idea that mass incarceration became a recognized problem ten or twelve years ago diminishes the amount of responsibility the Clintons have to accept when confronting the role their support for tough-on-crime policies played.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton typically characterize the devastating impact of the 1994 crime bill as “unintended consequences.” Yet, the crime bill included $10 billion for building more prison facilities. The Clintons should have known the bill would enable the very “era of mass incarceration,” which they condemn now. That they apparently did not recognize what their actions would do undermines the notion that these are political leaders with sound judgment.

Furthermore, according to Taylor, “Clinton lobbied for the legislation in the same Memphis church where [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] had given his last speech the day before he was assassinated. Clinton’s pulpit speech demonstrated the tremendous shift in racial politics. King had used that pulpit to support Black maintenance workers as they attempted to unionize; Clinton used it to ask Black people to support expanding the death penalty.”

“Clinton claimed to be using the words he assumed King would say if he were alive to deliver the speech himself: ‘I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandonment,'” Taylor recounts. “It was an awful statement, devoid of any facts or historical context of how public policy had nurtured urban divestment for the better part of the twentieth century and by doing so had actually encouraged crime, violence, and drug use.”

This was part of how the Clinton administration put enormous pressure on the black political class to support the crime bill, even if they were opposed to it. Some tried to make adjustments to it, such as adding a provision to enable death row inmates to use statistics to prove they were victims of systemic racism. However, black Democrats supportive of this measure backed-off and eventually prominent black politicians like Congressman John Lewis helped pave the way for its passage.

Remarkably, what Bill Clinton said in 1993 to sell the crime bill to black Americans is starkly similar to what he bellowed at Black Lives Matter activists in Philadelphia. He insisted the activists protesting Hillary Clinton were defending “gang leaders, who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out in the street to murder other African American children.”

“Maybe you thought they were good citizens. [Hillary Clinton] didn’t. She didn’t. You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter. Tell the truth,” Clinton shouted.

By the time Clinton’s presidency was over, black incarceration rates had tripled. The U.S. was now locking up more of its population than any country in the world. So, it’s questionable whether Hillary Clinton recognizes what it will take to end the “era of mass incarceration,” especially when her comments lack much of this specific context.

The Daily News editorial board asked her what needs to be done to set a tone and reverse a tone set by the 1994 crime bill. Clinton had three talking points. She said there needs to be more funds for “police retraining.” She said police need to be demilitarized (but suggested the problem started after the September 11th attacks when, in fact, it goes back to the Pentagon authorizing equipment for departments when Bill Clinton was president).

Hillary Clinton vaguely stated, “We need to do much more to incentivize diversion programs on the front end and work with the police and communities to be partners in that and much more to incentivize different behaviors and programs inside correction facilities.” This is marginally better than George Romney, President Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, suggesting black Americans suffered from “bad habits, lawlessness, laziness, unemployment, inadequate education, low working skills, ill health, poor motivation, and a self-image,” and more investment in public housing would not fix these “crisis problem people.”

Essentially, Clinton believes the incarcerated, and their work ethics and behaviors, should be the focus. Yet, to truly confront the prison state, which incarcerates millions, there needs to be action directed at the system. Tinkering with training and prison education will barely change the culture of mass incarceration.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."