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By Will Cabaniss August 25, 2015

Black Lives Matter activist says 'the Clintons' passed policy that led to mass incarceration

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton offered a glimpse of her approach to issues affecting African-Americans in a tense exchange with Black Lives Matter activists that was recorded and spread across social media.

Clinton told Boston-area organizers Julius Jones and Daunasia Yancey that she didn’t believe in "changing hearts" on issues of racial justice but in changing laws and reallocating resources instead.

Jones and Yancey expressed concern about Clinton’s remarks on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show the next week.

"She doesn’t actually feel like you can move this issue forward other than through policy," Jones said, "even though the policy mistakes that she and the Clintons made got us, in large degree, to the situation that we are in today with mass incarceration."

We wanted to see if Jones was right to blame the Clintons for the United States’ prison woes.

We reached out to Jones, who identifies himself as the founder of Black Lives Matter Worcester, and Black Lives Matter Boston to clarify what Jones meant, but we did not hear back from either source.

The underlying policy, however, is well-known. The question is how much it contributed to the growth of America’s prison population. As we'll see, the growth of the prison population started well before the federal law.

A ‘tough-on-crime environment’

As Jones suggests, the United States has the highest incarceration rate among developed nations, at around 700 prisoners per 100,000 people.

African-Americans in particular are locked up at disproportionate rates. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 37 percent of the 1.5 million men in state and federal prisons in 2013 were black, more than twice the percentage of their share of the population.

It wasn’t always this high; before 1975, the incarceration rate hovered around 200 prisoners.

Some of the growth had to do with Clinton policies, but experts said not all.

Crime policy during the 1970s and 1980s was driven by the "War on Drugs," an initiative launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Nixon famously called drug abuse "public enemy No. 1," which led to tougher sentencing and more arrests.

New York passed the nation’s first mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 1973, and Washington passed the first state-level truth-in-sentencing law in 1984. By 1987, five states had adopted sentencing guidelines for judges to follow.

President Bill Clinton took office in January 1993 touting a "tough-on-crime" agenda in response to an increase in violent crime and swelling homicide numbers. High-profile killings, such as the murder of Polly Klaas, followed later that year.

Bill Clinton was instrumental in the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, the sweeping crime bill provided $10 billion to fund new prisons, $6.1 billion for crime prevention and money for 100,000 new police officers.

It also enforced harsher sentencing in federal prisons and incentivized the creation of "truth-in-sentencing" laws at the state level. These laws require violent offenders to serve a minimum portion of their original sentence by ruling out the possibility of early parole. Under the bill, states that set this minimum at 85 percent of the sentence were granted funding for new prisons, and by 1998, 27 states and the District of Columbia had qualified.

The president took the final minutes of his first State of the Union to lobby for the bill. Hillary Clinton, too, campaigned for the legislation in speeches and interviews across the country.

The bill ultimately found wide support among Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

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Just five years after the crime bill was passed, 29 states had truth-in-sentencing laws, and 24 had three strikes laws.

The bill’s effect

So did the crime bill lead to mass incarceration?

The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit group that supports reducing the prison population, has tracked the massive expansion of people in federal, local and state prisons over the past century.

Yes, the overall inmate population of the United States has grown significantly since 1994. But the sharp upward trend actually started in the early 1980s. Prisons were adding inmates in 1990 at about the same rate they were in 1997, three years after the crime bill became law.

In addition, the bill’s new sentencing standards only directly applied to federal cases. But most of the growth since 1980 has taken place within state systems, which have added almost 1.25 million prisoners over that time.

So even though the number of people in federal prison has grown, perhaps as a result of those new standards, federal prisoners represent only a small fraction of the national prison population’s overall growth.

And while the bill incentivized truth-in-sentencing laws at the state level, many states had already enacted harsher laws on their own by 1994, said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a prison policy think tank. Mauer said it’s hard to place the onus of responsibility solely on the Clinton-backed crime bill because the trend towards mass incarceration started as early as 1980.

"(The bill) is sometimes unfairly viewed as being the major factor that has contributed to high incarceration rates," he said.

So what really drove up the inmate population?

"Criminal justice policy leading up to the crime bill was driven by the ‘War on Drugs’ and the desire to appear ‘tough on crime’ by focusing on punishment and retribution, not rehabilitation," said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy and research group that published a retrospective on the bill in 2014.

Still, the 1994 bill was the single biggest legislative victory for the tough-on-crime movement. It "certainly didn’t help" the mass incarceration epidemic, Turner said.

Crime rates have been on the decline since the early 1990s, making today’s high incarceration levels even more apparent.

In the past few years, the Clintons have backtracked on the policies they once championed. The former president seems to regret the bill’s passage.

"I signed a bill that made the problem worse," he recently told the NAACP. "And I want to admit that."

Hillary Clinton has also called for changes to the justice system during her presidential campaign, saying in an April 2015 speech that "we don't want to create another 'incarceration generation.' "

Clinton's campaign highlighted its transcript of her exchange with Black Lives Matter activists where she concedes that "what was tried and how it was implemented has not produced the kinds of outcomes that any of us would want."  

Our ruling

Jones said, "The policy mistakes that (Hillary) and the Clintons made got us, in large degree, to the situation that we are in today with mass incarceration."

While Hillary Clinton as first lady had no official role in voting for or signing the 1994 crime bill, she certainly championed some of its policies that are now partially blamed for the growth of the prison population, such as longer, tougher prison sentences. The crime bill was not the root cause of this growth, however, as America’s prison population had been expanding since the late 1980s.

We rate Jones’ statement Half True.

Our Sources

Phone interview with Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Institute, Aug. 19, 2015
Phone interview with Marc Mauer, president of the Sentencing Project, Aug. 20, 2015
Phone interview with Eli Hager, the Marshall Project, Aug. 20, 2015
Email interview with Chris Munzig, Nicholas Turner, Vera Institute for Justice, Aug. 19, 2015
Email interview with Josh Schwerin, spokesperson, Hillary for America, Aug. 25, 2015

The Rachel Maddow Show, Aug. 17, 2015

PolitiFact Virginia, "Webb says U.S. has world’s highest incarceration rate," Aug. 10, 2015

PolitiFact Rhode Island, "Brown U. student leader: More African-American men in prison system now than were enslaved in 1850," Dec. 7, 2014

U.S. Census Bureau, "State & County QuickFacts," Aug. 5, 2015, "Timeline: America’s War on Drugs," Apr. 2, 2007

United States Sentencing Commission, "Report on Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, Chapter 6: The National Legislative and Law Enforcement Response to Cocaine"

New York Times, "Clinton, in Houston Speech, Assails Bush on Crime Issue," July 24, 1992

Journal of Economic Perspectives, "Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not," 2004

New York Times, "Victims of Chance in Deadly Rampage," July 7, 1993

Polly Klaas Foundation, "Polly’s Story"

Texas Observer, "The Standoff in Waco," April 18, 2013

New York Times, "Bill Clinton Concedes His Crime Law Jailed Too Many for Too Long," July 15, 2015, "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994," Sept. 13, 1994

University of Virginia Miller Center, "State of the Union Address," Jan. 25, 1994

Buzzfeed News, "Here’s Hillary Clinton In 1994 Talking Up Tough-On-Crime Legislation," Apr. 29, 2015

White House Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by the First Lady to the Ninth Annual ‘Women in Policing’ Awards," Aug. 10, 1994

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons," January 1999

United States Senate, "U.S. Senate Roll Call Votes 103rd Congress - 2nd Session," Aug. 25, 1994

Defense Logistics Agency, "Law Enforcement Support Office"

American Civil Liberties Union, "War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing"

Prison Policy Institute, "Tracking State Prison Growth in 50 States," May 28, 2014

Vera Institute of Justice, "Mandatory Sentences: How We Got Here"

Vera Institute of Justice, "Justice in Focus: Crime Bill @ 20"

The Atlantic, "Hillary Clinton and Tragic Politics of Crime," May 1, 2015, "Anti Drug-Abuse Act of 1986," Oct. 27, 1986

Brennan Center for Justice, "The Crime Bill’s Legacy, Two Decades Later," Jul. 2, 2014

Politico, "Hillary Clinton’s criminal justice plan: Reverse Bill’s policies"

OnTheIssues, "Hillary Clinton on Crime"

The Atlantic, "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police," Nov. 7, 2011

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Black Lives Matter activist says 'the Clintons' passed policy that led to mass incarceration

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