Speaking at the NAACP National Convention in Philadelphia on July 15, former President Bill Clinton apologized to Black America for signing the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, a tough on crime measure which boosted prison sentences, especially for people of color, and helped create the problem of mass incarceration in America.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks jokingly introduced Clinton as “the first Black president”—as he was known by many for his comfort level with African Americans and saxophone performance on the Arsenio Hall Show. But one must ask how a “Black” president can treat Black people this way.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton told the crowd at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. “I wanted to admit it,” the former president said of the law that placed Black and Latino people in prison with longer sentences than whites, as reported in USA Today.
Seeming to justify the damaging piece of legislation he enacted into law, Clinton said he signed the bill because “we had had a roaring decade of rising crime” when he came into office. “We had gang warfare on the streets. We had little children being shot dead on the streets who were just innocent bystanders standing in the wrong place,” he said.
“In that bill, there were longer sentences. And most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend,” Clinton said. “And that was overdone. We were wrong about that. That percentage of it, we were wrong about.”
Moreover, the former commander-in-chief attempted to put a positive spin on a dreadful legacy, not unlike those who would excuse those presidents who owned slaves.
“The good news is we had the biggest drop in crime in history,” he said. “The bad news is we had a lot people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
A day earlier, President Obama addressed the convention, decrying a criminal justice system that targets people of color with draconian sentences, is not designed for rehabilitation, and encourages inhumane practices such as solitary confinement. The president’s remarks came in a week when he made a push to end mass incarceration, commuted the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders, and planned to visit a federal prison.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—which both Bill and Hillary Clinton supported, and current Vice President Joe Biden sponsored in the Senate— included $9.7 billion for new federal prison construction and 100,000 new police officers. The number of crimes eligible for the death penalty was increased to 60, and juveniles as young as 13 were to be charged as adults. Further, the law included a federal “three strikes” provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug felonies.
Earlier this year, President Clinton told CNN the 1994 law “cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison.” He added, “And we wound up … putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”
The Clinton apology is timed well to coincide not only with President Obama’s initiatives for criminal justice reform, but more importantly, his wife Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. In other words, the NAACP speech was a well-timed political move to mend fences with the Black community in order to pave the way for his wife’s candidacy.
The damage created by this crime bill was dramatic.
“Here’s the federal government coming in and saying we’ll give you money if you punish people more severely, and 28 states and the District of Columbia followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses,” Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told NPR.
According to Politico, during the Clinton presidency, the number of prisoners grew nearly 60 percent, based on data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Today, prisons are a $80 billion a year industry that diverts taxpayer money from public investments in social programs, education and infrastructure. And thanks to the Clinton crime bill, the U.S. became the world’s prison capital—and houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners—with 2.2 million prisoners, up from only 200,000 in 1973. In addition, based on FBI estimates, one-third of Americans have a criminal record. Further, according to the Urban Institute, the federal prison system exceeds 218,000 people, a tenfold increase since 1980. Last year, a report from the National Research Council called U.S. incarceration growth “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”
The 1994 crime bill created glaring racial disparities in America’s prison system, accelerating a war on drugs that became a war on Black America. The number of people in prison and jail for drug offenses skyrocketed, from 40,900 in 1980 to 489,000 in 2013, a twelve-fold increase according to the Sentencing Project. Communities of color were decimated and families separated and destroyed, and more than 60 percent of American prisoners are Black or Latino. The Sentencing Project notes that “Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and Hispanic men are 2.4 times more likely. For black men in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail.”
Statistics show that Black men born in America have a high probability of facing prison or jail time at some point in their lives.
“If you’re a black baby born today, you have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail,” said Nick Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice to NPR. “If you’re Latino, it’s a 1 in 6 chance. And if you’re white, it’s 1 in 17.
According to the National Research Council, Black men under the age of 35 with no high school diploma are more likely to be sitting behind bars than in the labor market. Further, 62 percent of Black children whose parents had not completed high school had a parent sent to prison, as opposed to 15 percent of white children.
Women are suffering as well from mass incarceration, as the number of women in prison increased 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, from 15,118 to 112,797, according to the Sentencing Project. Including women in local jails, there are over 205,000 women behind bars, and the number of incarcerated women increased at nearly 1.5 times greater than the rate for men.
Meanwhile, recidivism is high for released prisoners, in a system that does not seek rehabilitation. According to the National Institute of Justice, a study found that within three years of release, 67.8 percent of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years, over three-quarters, or 76.6 percent of released prisoners were rearrested. Further, of those who were rearrested, 56.7 percent were arrested by the end of the first year.
Based on the damage that has been done, Black people and Americans in general require far more than apologies for actions that lined the pockets and bolstered the political careers of some, while turning Black and poor communities into commodities and casualties. The candidates for president must commit to undoing the damage this law created. And Hillary Clinton, who seeks to rebrand herself as a criminal justice reformer, owes Black America an apology as well for supporting that crime bill.