No, Hill’s Not “Correcting Bill” On Criminal Justice Reform

Unsurprisingly, Rand Paul took a swipe at Hillary Clinton’s speech on policing and criminal justice reform (per Dave Wiegel):

Hillary Clinton proposed various criminal justice reform ideas in an attempt to undo some of Bill Clinton’s work—the same work she cheerfully supported as First Lady,” said the campaign, in an unsigned release. “Not only is Hillary Clinton trying to undo some of the harm inflicted by the Clinton administration, she is now emulating proposals introduced by Senator Rand Paul over the last several years, and we welcome her to the fight.”

What he and other Clinton critics appear to be alluding to in referring to “Bill Clinton’s work” on criminal justice is the 1994 Omnibus Crime Law, a gigantic Christmas tree of a bill that included all kinds of things most of the people voting for it did not actually support. The Clintons’ main investment in it, at least as I recall, were the initiatives to put “100,000 more cops on the street” and to promote community policing–intertwined initiatives, actually, since community policing was intended to change the internal structure of police departments so that the career incentives did not encourage desk jobs.

What Paul appears to be talking about were the drug sentencing initiatives which no, the Clintons did not veto, but which were mainly being pushed by Republicans who mocked the Clintons’ priorities by lumping them in with a much-derided “midnight basketball” program in the bill that conservatives loved to treat as a typical liberal coddle-the-criminals approach.

There’s something a bit weird about Paul acting as though he’s superior because he was not complicit in legislation that was enacted when he was just beginning his ophthalmological practice. But in any event, an essential companion to HRC’s speech are her–and Bill’s–submissions to a new Brennan Center for Justice book on criminal justice reform, which by coincidence just came out Monday. (Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker have essays, as does the real manager of the 1994 crime bill, Joe Biden, and also Martin O’Malley). In his Foreword for the book, Bill Clinton has this to say about the legacy of his presidency on criminal justice, which again, included a lot of compromises with the Republicans who controlled Congress six of the eight years we are talking about:

It has been two decades since there was sustained national attention to criminal justice. By 1994, violent crime had tripled in 30 years. Our communities were under assault. We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then. It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.

So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets. But too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored. A very small number of people commit a large percentage of serious crimes — and society gains when that relatively small group is behind bars. But some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.

The new approach has many roots and just as many advantages: a desire to save taxpayers money; the resolve to promote rehabilitation not recidivism; an obligation to honor religious values; the necessity to alleviate crushing racial imbalances. All of them strengthen this powerful new movement.

Now it’s time to focus on solutions and ask the right questions. Can we do a better job identifying the people who present a serious threat to society? If we shorten prison terms, could we take those savings and, for example, restore the prison education programs that practically eliminate recidivism? How can we reduce the number of prisoners while still keeping down crime?….

After decades in which fear of crime was wielded as a political weapon, so many now understand the need to think hard and offer real reforms, which, if implemented, can bring about this change in the right way.

HRC’s brief essay isn’t a lot more specific than her speech at Columbia yesterday, but she did nicely integrate the policing and sentencing reform issues; one real problem is that a lot of Republicans tend to emphasize the second issue at the expense of the first.

In any event, neither party’s hands are clean on this subject, and while Rand Paul deserves real credit for his outspokenness on sentencing reform, he’s following a lot of real pioneers at a time that this subject is no longer inherently toxic for Democrats and unspeakable among Republicans.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.