Sorry Bill Clinton: The effects of your drug, prison policies need more than a 'my bad'
They always say better late than never.
But in the case of Bill Clinton’s apology for the war on drugs and mass incarceration, is it too much, too late?
President Bill Clinton admitted what few politicians ever do. He said he was wrong. He conceded that the policies of his administration played a role in today’s mass incarceration of America.
As CNN reported, the former president admitted that he and his administration touted the “three strikes” provision of his 1994 omnibus crime bill, while also pointing the finger at Republicans. The legislation provided for mandatory life sentences for people convicted of a violent felony after at least two prior convictions, including drug-related offenses.
“The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison,” Clinton said Wednesday. “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.”
Clinton claimed he accepted some the harshest measures in the bill because he wanted it passed. In a speech in September, 1994, then-President Clinton promised to “break the gangs, ban those cop-killer bullets, [impose] drug testing from parolees, improve the opportunities for community-based strategies to lower crime, and give our children something to say ‘yes’ to.” And that crime bill helped the nation’s “first black president” win reelection in 1996, twelve years before the real first black president, of course.
Meanwhile, this comes at a time when Hillary Clinton, Bill’s wife and a candidate for president, is on point and on her game when it comes to talking about reducing the prison population. In late April, she called for radical changes to the criminal justice system, a demilitarization of police forces and an end to “weapons of war on our streets.”
“We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance and these recent tragedies should galvanize us as a nation to find our balance again,” she said at a forum in New York.
“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she added. “From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable,” Clinton added. “Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina … Tamir Rice, shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio … Eric Garner, choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes.”
Still, the president of the United States has a great deal of power to get things done, and the policies of Bill Clinton held their own in giving America the world’s largest prison population.
But without question, the war on drugs was a collaborative effort, and no single person can take sole responsibility. The “tough on crime” stance was responsible for electing and reelecting many politicians.
Perhaps some of them even had good intentions, out of a concern over the drug epidemic and crime in the streets. At the same time, the war on drugs became a money-making scheme for others, including the private prison industry and the individuals and corporations that benefit from prison growth and law enforcement agencies with their drug task forces.
Meanwhile, black America lost a great deal in terms of the separation of families and the destruction of communities brought upon by the wholesale incarceration of black men. Think of all of the black children who grew up with a parent behind bars. It is no secret that 1.5 million black men are missing due in no small measure to mass incarceration, and some would call it genocide against black people.
At over 2 million prisoners, the majority of color, one quarter of the world’s prisoners are right here in the land of the free, the nation with more jails than colleges. Prisons are an addictive drug, a way to make money and keep people in line when there are no jobs for them.
Meanwhile, events in Baltimore, Ferguson and all points in between have forced society to begin to look at the racial underpinnings of everything it holds dear, and all of which it needs to cast aside.
This is shaping up as a coming to Jesus moment. Throw a presidential election into the mix, and the smart politician will get in front of this thing and advocate policies that position herself as part of the solution. That is, if you want black voters to come out to the polls on Election Day.
“Tough on crime” has died and given way to #BlackLivesMatter. For the Clintons to throw their criminal justice legacy under the bus is a rare and welcome development. Never would we expect Bush to forsake his legacy of death and destruction in the Iraq War, which was built on lies and fabrications, cost thousands of lives and paved the way for ISIS.
However, given that too many black lives have been lost by mass incarceration, is it really enough for Bill to effectively say “sorry ’bout that y’all” and “my bad, I got carried away”? Perhaps he should view his mea culpa as a good first step — a down payment of sorts.
With Clinton’s influence, his foundation and the respect he still commands, he can do more to address this prison mess he helped create.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove