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Vail Daily column: Clintons not to blame

Bill Clinton did not cause mass incarceration in America and Bernie Sanders cannot end it. Blaming America’s enormous prison population on the former president and the first lady, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, displays ignorance of the historical facts. Furthermore, federal prisons house about 10 percent of the U.S. prison population; the remaining 90 percent are in state facilities over which the president has no control. Sorry, Bernie.

To understand how we became the world’s leading jailer we need to take a trip down memory lane. In the ’80s, the Russians were in Afghanistan, Bill Cosby was America’s dad, and nuclear winter hung over our collective heads. The ’80s were also a time of the crack cocaine scourge and historically high rates of crime. Everyone wanted to get tough on crime, especially drug-related crime. Democrats, still smarting from the “Willie Horton” political ads that helped sink Michael Dukakis’ presidential ambitions, were working to dispel the notion they were soft on crime.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was debated during the summer of 1994. Recently protesters heckled former President Clinton blaming him for this law and the mass incarceration it supposedly generated. The president did not act alone. One of the chief architects of the bill was Sen. Joe Biden. Furthermore, the bill passed handily with bipartisan support, including the vote of Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders.

The public demanded tougher sentencing and three-strikes provisions. Former Republican Congressman Rick Lazio, then a Representative from Long Island, told the New York Times, “… Republicans might consider the release of those convicted for low levels of possession but … they did not want to release drug dealers.” The war on drugs was taking prisoners for a very long time.

The law also increased the number of federal crimes eligible for the death penalty. Democratic Black Caucus members were concerned that the death penalty would be applied disproportionately against blacks. This was the part of the bill the Black Caucus questioned, not the sentencing of drug dealers or repeat offender — in other words, those things that led to mass incarceration. According to The New York Times, in order to sway reluctant members of the Democratic Black Caucus to support the bill the White House released a statement with “40 black members of the clergy supporting the crime bill.” Several black mayors including Kurt Schmoke, the first black mayor of Baltimore, urged the caucus to support the bill. In hindsight their concern seems misplaced. Federal executions are relatively rare. Since 1927, there have been 37 federal executions and only three since this law went into effect. Of the three recent federal executions one was Caucasian, one Latino and one black — hardly indicative of a pattern of discrimination.

The law was not just about tougher sentencing; it promised millions to states who were only too happy to receive this largesse. All the reports from that era reported plans for increased funding for drug rehabilitative programs, hiring of more counselors for juvenile offenders and opening shelters for battered women. One of the most popular aspects of the bill was federal funding for states and cities to hire more police officers. This bill also established the sex-offender registry.

Notably, the federal government lagged behind the states in reacting to the crime wave. States were already jailing more convicts for longer stays. This brings up another misunderstood aspect of America’s prison system — private prisons that share the blame for mass incarceration. The numbers tell another story. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, as of 2013 about 15 percent of federal inmates and 7 percent of state inmates were in private prisons. Those are significant numbers but hardly at the level that would implicate private prisons for fueling mass incarceration. As German Lopez points out on Vox.com, “private prisons are a response to mass incarceration, not a cause of it.” As states locked up more people they faced overcrowding and rising costs. States were looking for ways to save money.

The crime bill passed in 1994 enjoyed bipartisan support and tremendous public approval. Blaming the Clintons for the country’s high level of incarceration 20 years later is political theater and does nothing to solve the problem.

Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at www.clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @byClaireNoble.


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