A Clinton Apology for Mass Incarceration Does What?

So, apparently, Hillary Clinton owes black people an apology for mass incarceration. I don’t exactly know why she does. But, while we’re at it, can we have her apologize for the death of Tupac and Biggie Smalls?

In the video below, Black Lives Matter activist, Ashley Williams, speaks to MSNBC’s Tamron Hall about holding Hillary Clinton accountable for mass incarceration because she promoted the controversial 1994 Crime Bill.

Watch the interview below:

Williams recently attended a private campaign fundraising event where she demanded an apology to African-Americans from Clinton for her role in advancing the controversial “tough on crime” legislation that led to a massive increase in mass incarceration.

My thoughts? While mass incarceration is indeed a concern – in particular because of the disproportionate rates of incarceration for people of color – much of today’s discussion centered the 1994 Crime Bill ignores the reality that was the increased wave of violent crime in the early nineteen-nineties. It also ignores the fact that urban communities were essentially ground zero for an underground drug economy in the wake of a recession under George W. H. Bush, after eight years of Reaganomics.

Most importantly, however, the critique of the legislation totally ignores the fact that there were many people in urban centers who were calling for government intervention at the time. I don’t know about you, but I’m old enough to remember the crack wars  by rival gangs  and other would-be pharmaceutical engineers. As a black man of a certain age with one foot in college and the other in the streets back then, I can tell you a few stories of near brushes with death and the ease with which I was able to buy guns and build my own mini arsenal that included an assault rifle.

Yes, I was no saint; and, I’ve personally seen friends blown away. Mind you, this was at a time when drive-by shootings were all the rage. This was at the time when the crack wars among rival gangs were reminiscent of the Wild Wild West. Back then, in communities of color all across the country, innocent bystanders – many of whom were children – fell victim to bullets intended for specific targets. As I mentioned before, I had a friend who was blown away in this manner. That said, forgive me if the term “superpredator” fails to illicit a negative reaction because my racial sensibilities are somehow hurt. I’m sorry, it was what it was; and, it is what it is. Black and brown folks were killing each other at rates much higher than they are now. And, it was to the extent that many of us in the black community called gangbangers a lot worse to describe them than the term “superpredator.” Sorry, I’m not that sensitive.

Having said that, here’s something to think about as it relates to apologize and government policy: apologies mean little unless they’re coupled with effective policies. I mean, the U.S. government has officially apologized for slavery. Yet and still, said apology has done zero to change the problem that is racial inequality and the residual effects of slavery. That said, what then is to be expected from an apology from Hillary Clinton on the single issue that is mass incarceration? The truth here is that apologies aren’t policies. An apology from Hillary Clinton hardly suffices as a policy prescription. An apology for legislation she helped to promote as First Lady doesn’t do a damn thing. And while we’re talking about it, if we’re to be honest, her promoting said legislation carries less weight than an actual member of Congress voting for it. But, of course, nobody is asking Sen. Bernie Sanders or anyone else in congress who voted for the bill at that time for an apology, so I won’t hold my breath.

But hey, who am I to question the efficacy of public shaming, right? As Hillary Clinton said in an encounter with members of Black Lives Matter last year, it’s not about changing hearts and minds, it’s about changing laws. And, from where I’m sitting, sadly, it appears that the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters have yet to get the memo.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton attends The Hillary Rodham Clinton Awards for Advancing Women in Peace and Security, in the Riggs Library at Georgetown University in Washington, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton attends The Hillary Rodham Clinton Awards for Advancing Women in Peace and Security, in the Riggs Library at Georgetown University in Washington, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

While disrupting events and demanding apologies, let’s ignore the fact that there’s criminal justice reform legislation currently working its way through the U.S., Senate. Let’s ignore that this landmark bipartisan piece of legislation seeks to reverse the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill. Let’s also ignore that said legislation is being stalled by a handful of Republicans as we speak. But y’all don’t hear me or the fact that Hillary Clinton has already apologized. Nevertheless, I won’t bore you with facts that dispute everything you thought you knew about the negative effects of the 1994 Crime Bill. Me stating it here with empirical evidence to support the fact that its effects have been overstated will do little to change the minds of people hellbent on seeking apologies instead of promoting policies. That would be, policies that positively impacts the 13% of the U.S. prison population that actually falls under federal jurisdiction.

Kevin Drum has an interesting piece where he explains just how much the impact of the 1994 Crime Bill has been overstated. You can check it out if you like, but here’s this nugget of information from  Kevin Drum:

… by 1995, when the crime bill took effect, state and federal policies had long since been committed to mass incarceration. Between 1978 and 1995 the prison population had already increased by more than 250 percent. Between 1995 and its peak in 2009, it increased only another 40 percent—and even that was due almost entirely to policies already in place.

And then there’s this from John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who studies prison policy from an empirical perspective.

The percent of people in prison on drug charges nationwide peaked in 1991. And since 1991, it has more or less steadily declined. Now, it’s true that the total number of people in prison on drug charges went up, but the whole prison population was going up along with it. The rate of growth for drug offenders in prison actually slowed down during the Clinton years; it didn’t speed up. Between 1980 and 1990, a third of all state prison growth was due to more drug offenders being sent to prison. During that period, the total number of state drug offenders rose from 19,000 to 149,000. Between 1990 and 2009—so, two decades, rather than just one decade—the number went from 149,000 to 242,000.

[…]  The number of federal drug prisoners did go up: Between 1992 and 2000, the number of federal drug inmates rose from around 43,000 to just under 75,000. To put that in perspective, the total U.S. prison population grew by over 511,000 during that time. The increase in federal drug inmates was less than 6 percent of that total.

But that leads to my other problem with saying Clinton “presided over” the prison growth: I think it gives him too much agency. It’s true that Clinton had some control over the federal system, but he had almost none over the states, and almost all the growth in prison populations during his two terms occurred in the states—87 percent of the increase, if only because most prisoners are held in state prisons.

So as a strictly chronological matter, yes, it is true that the Clinton years saw the single greatest increase in the number of U.S. prison inmates compared to any other presidency. What that implies about his centrality to that growth—that’s where I have a much harder time.

There’s also this notion going around that says that the 1994 crime bill led to an explosion of new prisons built with federal funds in states. This too is another false claim. According to the folks at the National Institute of Justice, this is not true. In an investigated report, they have concluded that truth-in-sentencing initiatives within the bill which gave states incentives to build more prisons were hardly adopted (read here).

While Ashley Williams and her crew are content to secure apologies from Hillary Clinton, why should they stop there? Why not perform a seance and summon the ghosts of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and ask them for apologies as well? Sounds absurd, I know. But hey, isn’t that how you effectuate change? Yes, I’m only asking for a friend.