Monday, April 25, 2016

Mass Incarceration and the Clintons

Bill and Hillary Clinton made news last year when both admitted regret in the roles they played in the 1990s in exacerbating the mass incarceration hysteria that gripped the nation in the 1980s and 1990s.  The Corporate Justice Blog highlighted as much at this time last year.  At that time, both President Clinton and the First Lady added fuel to the fire as reported by the New York Times:  “'Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets,' President Bill Clinton said in 1994 as he signed a far-reaching anti-crime bill to bipartisan acclaim.  Defending the law at the time, a frightened era of crack cocaine wars and record murder rates, Hillary Clinton, as first lady, warned about an emerging generation of 'super-predators' — a notion she later repudiated."

Now, the NY Times is reporting that the 1994 crime bill that is often blamed for massively increasing incarceration rates in the United States, signed into law by Bill Clinton, was simply a measure that piled-on to the draconian legislative provisions that criminalized drug abuse beginning in the Nixon and Reagan administrations.  Adding to this morass is data that shows that violent crime was already dropping, and rapidly, at the time the crime bill was signed in 1994 and despite notable drops in violent crime, law enforcement continued to lock up American citizens at record rates.  Why?  Consider the chart below:

As reported by the New York Times:  “'The trend of increased incarceration had already started two decades before 1994,' said Jeremy Travis, the president of the John Jay College of Justice in New York. . . .
'To lay mass incarceration and the damages to black communities on the doorstep of the 1994 crime act is historically inaccurate,' Mr. Travis said, although elements of the law added to the problem in a modest way.
What the historical record does show is that many federal and state changes in criminal justice policy led to a fourfold rise in the incarceration rate from the early 1970s until it declined modestly in the last few years.
The rise in incarceration was driven by state laws like the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws in New York. And it was stoked by a major 1986 federal drug act, which expanded mandatory sentences and set the now-notorious 100-to-one ratio in the quantities of powdered versus crack cocaine that could trigger severe penalties."


  1. Yes, American politicians have consistently encouraged more prisons, prisoners, and broken families for the last several decades by encouraging states to enact mandatory minimum sentences. Additionally, the 1994 crime act gave $10 BILLION to states that built more prisons within their boundaries.

    A lesson I took from the statements made by the Clintons and even Senator Sanders, is that many of these devastating laws were enacted with good intentions. However, these good intentions led to disastrous results. Sometimes, gridlock in government is best.

  2. It seems that politicians were creating the drug laws to prevent the use and possession of illegal drugs. Yes, violent crime rates have decreased, but that does not mean that drug use has also. While I do not think that incarceration will stop the amount of drug use happening and that laws should be focused more rehabilitation than punishment, it is difficult to rehabilitate a drug user when they do not see any issues with the use or possession of illegal drugs. I agree with Justin that the Legislature probably had good intentions when enacting all of the "get tough on illegal drug" laws, but it had huge consequences. My hope is that politicians will realize to decrease illegal drug use and possesion, laws needs to be centered around rehabilitation.

  3. Most law engorcement and politicians see drugs on the street as a supply problem but supply is the lesser of two elements. We only treat drug addiction if the addict if they can afford. Turning people out before their clean just puts unemployable drug attics back on the stre20160427_102340.jpeget to begin a revolving door process that will end when the addict is dead or in for life. Stop drugs . Attack the supply chain but also treat the demand.

  4. Megan Reynolds - CloseMay 14, 2016 at 12:52 PM

    This problem is multi-layered. Yes, this act has shown an increase of incarceration, has it contributed to that, I think so. However, what about the increasing issue of private prisons, prisons that have people invested financially. More prisoners = more money. Accepting the act gives the state more money. So we have an issue with a few things. First, there is a drug problem. The law makers want to make laws that enforce higher punishments on these users, however, that usually isn't the effect of such legislation. A drug user or addict isn't concerned with the punishment for their use. They are concerned about how to get the next fix. Increasing the punishment for non-violent criminals isn't going to keep these people suffering from addiction from using. Rehabilitation, however, is much more successful than punishment. However, rehabilitation costs more, and with private prisons, incarceration makes money for others. The drug issue should be addressed and needs to be curtailed, however, an act increasing the punishment without addressing the issue of the source of the addiction which leads to the drug use which leads to the bad behavior, which leads to incarceration, seems incredibly useless and counter-productive.

  5. Yes, the road to hell is paved with "good intentions." Arresting and incarcerating people because of their drug addiction doesn't stop their addiction. The problem is that these laws might have begun with the "intention" of removing the demand, i.e. the addicts, from the streets by putting them in jails, and thereby decreasing the need for a supply. However, the less-harmful means has always been, and will always be, providing treatment for drug addiction so those inclined to use make the choice not to do it. Our prisons are no place for a detox. What do we as a society want: to lock up people struggling with substance abuse in an "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" manner and release them into the world still as a substance abuser, but now one with a felony, or provide them a means of getting and staying clean which improves not only that individual, but also that individual's family, friends, co-workers, and all others they can have an impact on? I'm not going to pretend that drug use isn't a problem that needs corrected, but our heavy-handed approach has done far more damage than repair.

    Ryan Holden

  6. I think it's fascinating that everyone's mind went directly to drug users rather than the drug suppliers. I'm pretty liberal on these issues, but I'm not naive enough to believe high level drug dealing is non-violent crime. There are neighborhoods (predominantly black) that are basically warzones because of competing gangs (I don't know that we call them gangs anymore- but competing groups of people) are engaged in incessant battles over territory. You can not be a non-violent drug dealer. There are two issues here; 1. It's dangerous. Bullets don't have names attached- Hadiya Pendleton comes to mind most immediately but there have been countless others who are dead now because of drug dealing. 2. Nobody in America should be forced to live under a paramilitary regime. These people are terrorizing their communities in ways that would never be allowed in white neighborhoods. To that end, the impetus behind the crime bill was a desire to take back neighborhoods from oppressive regimes. In other words, to put away those individuals who were actively terrorizing the community. The black caucus was largely on board and certainly there was wide spread support from the black community. The problem was not in the bill itself, the issue is that they failed to confront the introduction of corporate interest that muddled the intent. A bill that was about protecting black neighborhoods quickly became an excuse to lock up more black people and monetize black bodies.