Asked whether she and her husband feel responsible for the state of the prison system and its effect on black America, Hillary Clinton acknowledged unintended consequences from the policies of the ‘90s — but also argued there was broad support across racial lines for the tough-on-crime policies Bill Clinton signed into law.
“When my husband became president, there was a great demand, not just from America writ large, but from the black community, to get tougher on crime,” Clinton said in an interview with Another Round, the BuzzFeed podcast.
In the interview, Clinton said too many nonviolent offenders ended up in prison as a result of those laws, calling that a “terrible strain and drain on the African-American community,” and discussed changing sentencing laws and post-prison support for people. She also said that those 1990s policies were “very strongly supported across communities of color” at the time.
“Al Sharpton said this, he said, I was one of the people who was asking that we get tougher on crime and that we clean up our neighborhoods and we stop gangs from killing each other,” Clinton said. “And he said, I was going around boarding up crack houses, and so we can’t go back and say we didn’t ask that a lot of this be done, because we did.”
(In an interview earlier this month, Sharpton told Clinton that “a lot of people forget a lot of us wanted something hard because of Len Bias and other things that were happening — crack, I was painting crack houses, trying to expose them. How do we deal with violence without adding to the mass incarceration?”)
ANOTHER ROUND: I feel like what [Black Lives Matter activists] were looking for, and what a lot of black people are looking for, is for you and/or your husband to shoulder some responsibility in the crisis that we’re facing now. So, my question to you is do you ever look at the state of black America today — we can focus on the prison system for now — and regardless of what the intents were, and I know the ‘90s were a different time — times change, legislation changes, needs change — but regardless of your intent, do you ever look at the state of black America and think, “Wow, we really fucked this up for black people”?
HILLARY CLINTON: I’ll tell you what I think, and my husband has spoken to this, he spoke about this at the NAACP just last summer — you always have to learn from what you do. I was interviewed by Al Sharpton the other day, and I’ve known him a long time, because I represented New York, and he said, and I think it’s good to be reminded of this, that in the ‘90s, and particularly when my husband became president, there was a great demand, not just from America at large, but from the black community, to get tougher on crime. And Al Sharpton said this, he said, I was one of the people who was asking that we get tougher on crime and that we clean up our neighborhoods and we stop gangs from killing each other. And he said, I was going around boarding up crack houses, and so we can’t go back and say we didn’t ask that a lot of this be done, because we did. I think what’s important is you take stock of what was done and you figure out what needs to change and what we have seen over the course of now a number of years is that too many low-level offenders, too many nonviolent offenders ended up in prison, and that became a terrible strain and drain on the African-American community, because too many, again, predominantly, not exclusively, men, were ending up incarcerated.
So I think what my husband said when he spoke to the NAACP was: Look, we’ve learned a lot, and took responsibility for whatever the impact of the legislation, but also being reminded that there were reasons that that legislation was passed and very strongly supported across communities of color and everybody else. In a democracy, you’re supposed to keep being a learning political system, and now we have to say to ourselves, as people are, hey, maybe there were some good intentions, but those intentions had unintended consequences, and we’ve got to deal with those consequences. But it’s not enough, in my opinion, as some on the Republican side are saying, let’s just change the sentencing and all that — I’m for all that, but let’s also provide more supports in the community. Let’s also make sure that people who are diverted from the criminal justice system have a real chance to get the services and support they need to build their lives. So, this has now I think got to be a broader conversation than just, you know, change the sentencing and move low-level offenders out of the prisons, because that has to be done, but that's not enough.
ANOTHER ROUND: Do you think that that answer is a good enough answer for the people of color who are right now in jail because of a very, very broken system?
CLINTON: Look, most of the people who are in jail are there are under state law, not federal law. The federal prisons are a very small part of the equation here. So you have to change the federal prisons, which are going to — that’s why President Obama went to visit a federal prison, because the president really only has direct authority over the federal prisons. We have to change what are the vast majority of decisions being made in local jails and state prisons in order to move this agenda forward. And the federal government can provide some incentives, like put more money into drug courts, put more money into services for people, so that you can then move states in the right direction, but states control their prison system. So again, that’s one of those distinctions that needs to be made. We’ve got to change the policies at the federal level to serve as an example hopefully to provide some incentives and disincentives so states also change their policies.
In Philadelphia at an NAACP convention this summer, Bill Clinton said that while the policies he championed in the 1990s did reduce crime, the laws were “overdone” and sent people to prison for “too long.”
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it,” he said, adding that while most Americans in prison are in state prison, the federal law influenced those laws. “And that was overdone. We were wrong about that.”
When talking about drug sentencing and crime this year, both he and Hillary Clinton have raised the high rates of crime and violence in the 1980s and early ‘90s as the environment for the tough-on-crime policies he helped implement. In his NAACP speech, Bill Clinton said, “We had kids in Los Angeles doing drills in their schools to learn how to drop down and get under their desks because of people just doing random drive-by shootings.”
“I see heads nodding,” Hillary Clinton told an audience in Nevada this summer, when discussing the crime and policies instituted to address it during the ‘90s. “You remember those days.”
Bill Clinton signed into law the 1994 crime bill — often described as the largest in history — which put into place the Violence Against Women Act and a ban on so-called assault weapons. The crime bill also put 100,000 new cops on the street, installed a “three strikes” rule on repeat offenses, funneled billions into the federal and state prison systems, and added new mandatory minimum sentencing rules.
In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton praised the law on more than one occasion, arguing that dangers of the era required a robust response. “We also have to have an organized effort against gangs, just as in a previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob,” she said in a 1996 speech, for instance. In that same speech, she said the 1994 crime bill was helping “take back our streets from crime, gangs, and drugs.” In 1994, she commended the law’s funding for prison construction, and the “three strikes” rule.
Since then, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers — led by progressives and libertarians — have argued the tough-on-crime policies of heavily armed police and strict drug sentencing need to change, and that the high incarceration rate in many communities, especially black communities, needs to be addressed. The movement represents a shift for both parties from decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric.
During her first campaign for president, Clinton herself described mandatory minimum sentencing as “discriminatory” in its impact. “Mandatory sentences for certain violent crimes may be appropriate, but it has been too widely used,” she said in a 2007 debate against then-Senator Barack Obama, responding to a question about the prison population. “And it is using now a discriminatory impact…(Also), we need diversion, like drug courts. Nonviolent offenders should not be serving hard time in our prisons.”
This year, Clinton has said we need to end the era of “mass incarceration.” She’s been pressed on the issue of her and her husband’s role in the 1990s policies at some campaign events and, in particular, in a closed-door exchange with Black Lives Matter protesters from Boston, who met with the candidate after an event they had planned to protest. During the August meeting in New Hampshire, she made a similar argument regarding people wanting tough crime policies at the time.
“But it’s important to remember — and I certainly remember — that there was a very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people,” Clinton told the activists. “And part of it was that there was just not enough attention paid. So you know, you could argue that people who were trying to address that — including my husband, when he was president—were responding to the very real concerns of people in the communities themselves.”
“Now, I do think that a lot of what was tried and how it was implemented has not produced the kinds of outcomes that any of us would want,” she said during that meeting.
In the interview with Another Round, Clinton called that meeting a “very honest, very open conversation” and said — regarding the much discussed remark about “changing laws” rather than “hearts” — that she was “sounding a note of caution” about activism:
ANOTHER ROUND: So we want to transition a little bit to talk about Black Lives Matter. We’ve talked a lot on our show about the recent barrage of stories about black people being killed by the police. I want to quote specifically from the encounter you had with Black Lives Matter activists a few week ago. You were saying, “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts, I believe you change laws. You change allocations of resources. You change the way systems operate. You're not going to change every heart. You’re not.” I don’t want to speak for them, but I don’t know if anyone was suggesting that policy doesn’t matter. I’m more curious generally to hear how you see racial change happening in America, especially as a white person who was radicalized by Martin Luther King. You talk a lot about hearing him speak, and how his assassination was very deeply meaningful to your young life.
CLINTON: I had what I thought was a very honest, very open conversation with the activists that I met with. I’m going to be meeting with some more. My staff is in constant contact with them, because I so admire their passion and their intensity in reacting to what is a terrible, continuing, systemic problem of race and justice in America. And there's no doubt in my mind that they have helped to galvanize opinion across the country and that they have given real energy to try and get some changes quickly made, as the president's policing commission has recommended and others. But I was sounding a note of caution because, again, having done this for a long time, I don’t want anybody who has that level of intelligence and energy and commitment to get discouraged, to walk away from the hard work it takes in politics to make changes, because we need them. We need their voices, we need their activism, and I’ve seen myself a lot of change that has happened, and it matters. The Civil Rights Act mattered, the Voting Rights Act mattered. But what I think what people have learned is that there is no way that progress continues if there’s not constant pressure.
ANOTHER ROUND: Oh, absolutely. I guess I’m curious more generally, what do you think it would take for other white people to see the problems that we see?
CLINTON: Oh, I think a lot do.
ANOTHER ROUND: Some, let’s say some. I think the frustration of that interaction was not that the policy wasn’t right. We can talk about policy, but that on a basic level, people feel like they're not being heard. Black Lives Matter is a pretty simple plea.
CLINTON: Right, it is. It is. But if it’s going to be a movement, and not just a plea, then it has to build on making changes that people either have to accept or they have to embrace. And in many ways, getting people to accept, the changes that are necessary, will require consistent pressure and leadership at all levels — in the community, all the way to the White House. And then you have to keep making the case, as I have tried to make, going back a long time, but in this campaign going back to the first speech I gave at Columbia University in New York, you’ve got to be willing to constantly say there are gross inequities, and you can’t act like they don’t exist. And one of the biggest is the way that African-American — particularly men, but also women, but let’s focus on men for a minute — are arrested more, charged more, tried more, convicted more, incarcerated more, than white men who do the very same things. Now that’s just a fact, and that’s a fact that you have to say over and over again, as I have done to a lot of audiences that are predominantly white, and say, “Put yourself in the position of either one of those young men, or the mother or the father of one of those young men. How would you feel?” And it’s not a question that is easily answered by a lot of white people because they don’t have that experience. And you have to force folks to kind of say to themselves, “Hey, if this is really happening, and I guess there is evidence to show it’s happening, then maybe I’d better change my thinking about all of this.” It’s a very slow process, but we made progress, now I think in some areas we’re stalled, so we have got to put some energy behind pushing forward and getting more people to do what they should be doing anyway.