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April 29, 2015

Candidate Clinton laments mass incarceration, but proposes only a "national debate" to address it

I have now had a chance to read this full text of Hillary Clinton's big policy speech on criminal justice reform delivered today at Columbia University (previewed here).  If forced to summarize my reaction in a word, I would probably go with ... MEH.  

The Clinton speech included plenty of heart-felt expressions of existing problems because, in Clinton's words, "we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance."  She also claimed to have past legal experiences that enabled her to "see how families could be and were torn apart by excessive incarceration."  But despite staying that it was "time to change our approach [and] to end the era of mass incarceration," Clinton provided no concrete (or even not-so-concrete) proposals that could help chart a new approach that would help end the mass incarceration era. 

Though the Clinton speech merits a read in full, here are some excerpts from Clinton's comments on "how we approach punishment and prison":

It's a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world's total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.

Of the more than 2 million Americans incarcerated today, a significant percentage are low-level offenders: people held for violating parole or minor drug crimes, or who are simply awaiting trial in backlogged courts. Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime. But it is does a lot to tear apart families and communities....

Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty. And it's not just families trying to stay afloat with one parent behind bars. Of the 600,000 prisoners who reenter society each year, roughly 60 percent face long-term unemployment. And for all this, taxpayers are paying about $80 billion a year to keep so many people in prison....

If the United States brought our correctional expenditures back in line with where they were several decades ago, we'd save an estimated $28 billion a year. And I believe we would not be less safe. You can pay a lot of police officers and nurses and others with $28 billion to help us deal with the pipeline issues.

It's time to change our approach. It's time to end the era of mass incarceration. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.

I don't know all the answers. That's why I'm here — to ask all the smart people in Columbia and New York to start thinking this through with me. I know we should work together to pursue together to pursue alternative punishments for low-level offenders. They do have to be in some way registered in the criminal justice system, but we don't want that to be a fast track to long-term criminal activity, we don't want to create another "incarceration generation."

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April 29, 2015 at 10:46 PM | Permalink


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Well, the presidential election is 18 months away. What do you want, a draft of all her proposed legislation? Have Rand Paul, etc., issued a point-by-point recitation of everything they plan to do to fix the criminal justice system? While the sentiments in the speech may seem obvious to you, there are plenty of people -- including the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, and many contributors to your blog -- who think there's absolutely nothing wrong with our policy of "mass incarceration," and that maybe we should be locking up even more people. On the other hand, some of us who agree that mass incarceration is a problem are happy to see a major candidate devote an entire speech to the issue, and don't feel the need to reflexively make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Posted by: Ryan from Las Vegas | Apr 30, 2015 2:51:28 PM

Make the perfect the enemy of the good. Are you kidding? We're just finishing up the fourth term of Bush-Cheney. And you want more of the same?

It is very simple to make a handful of specific suggestions to reduce mass incarceration. So what if someone doesn't agree. She has yet to make a specific suggestion or take a hard position on any issue. And she's not going to. She says "we need a true national debate." Well we're not going to have one unless some candidate has the backbone to stake out a position.

Posted by: Fred | Apr 30, 2015 9:17:10 PM

Correction. I meant the 6th term of Clinton-Gore or even the 8th term of Bush-Quayle.

Posted by: Fred | Apr 30, 2015 9:54:45 PM

Another reason Clinton is more of the same ole, nothing will get done politics, but Obama wasn't any better, new,fresh, hope and change not working.

Posted by: alex | May 2, 2015 5:58:22 AM

Obama was "all the same" except for various ways he was different.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2015 11:45:37 AM


Yes, Obama-Biden is different from Bush-Cheney, Clinton-Gore, Bush-Quayle, and Reagan-Bush, but only if you are comparing them within the context of the acceptable policy choices permitted by the Overton Window of establishment Washington. The problem is that the Washington establishment Overton Window of acceptable policy choices is very narrow in relation to the range and variety of acceptable policy choices held by the general public.

The MSM enforces the Washington establishment Overton Window by ridiculing any choice outside the Window, regardless of merit; by giving no coverage to any proponent of any choice outside the Window, regardless of merit; and by portraying the establishment Window as being identical to the general public Window. Moreover the leadership of both parties enforce the Window by back-benching and on occasion primarying any congressman or senator who is stupid enough to play outside the Window. You can’t be considered a “serious” person, unless your opinions are clearly within the establishment Window.

Because the establishment Window is such a narrow subset of the general public's Window, the differences between the establishment parties, where they do exist, are trivial (social-religious issues excluded). In effect, we have a one party government.

Posted by: Fred | May 2, 2015 8:01:42 PM

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