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'Will Hillary Clinton Abolish the Prison State?' — NO: The Mass Incarceration Program of Bill Clinton Detailed

Photo provided by Lucas Cobb.
Photo provided by Lucas Cobb.
By Robert Saleem Holbrook
As the front-runner for the democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton has been saying all the right things and making all the right moves. At an April 28 Columbia University forum on Criminal Justice, Hillary Clinton gave a passionate speech calling for the reform of the criminal justice system, intoning that, "We don't want to create another incarceration generation," in reference to the present generation of youth impacted by mass incarceration.
Clinton called for the reform of mandatory minimums and ending the marginalization of formerly incarcerated citizens. It was a very "politically correct" speech; Clinton hit all the talking points on mass incarceration. The question is: Can Hillary Clinton be trusted to dismantle the prison state her husband built? Don't count on it; and, if history is our guide, we can expect more of the same under Clinton if she is elected president.
RELATED STORY: Bill Clinton - Master of Mass Incarceration Accused of Rape of Multiple Women (Video)
Former President Bill Clinton is best remembered for presiding over one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in US history. However, the gem in Clinton's presidential legacy is an unprecedented era of prison expansion and the mass incarceration of the nation's citizens, with the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated under Clinton being Black and Brown.

Bill Clinton incarcerated more African Americans than any president in US history. It was under Bill Clinton that the United States embarked on the most massive prison expansion in US history. In 1994, Clinton endorsed and signed into law the "Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act," commonly referred to as the "Clinton Crime Bill." The Act passed the US Senate by an overwhelming vote of 95-4.

During his 1994 State of the Union address, Clinton endorsed the federal "Three Strikes and You're Out Law" to enthusiastic applause from both Democrats and Republicans. The "Crime Bill" he subsequently signed into law cost $30 billion and created dozens of new federal crimes warranting mandatory sentences and mandatory life sentences, including the "Three Strikes" law.

The bill allowed juveniles as young as 13 to be prosecuted for certain federal offenses; expanded the death sentence to cover over 60 offenses; allocated $16 billion toward state prison construction grants and the expansion of local and state police; authorized $500 million to the Bureau of Prisons to establish facilities to securely house juvenile offenders; and provided "bonus" grants to states that develop systems to prosecute juveniles as adults for violent offenses. Clinton also supported legislation that eliminated federal "Pell Grants" to prisoners for college education behind bars, essentially gutting college programs in prison systems around the country.

Infused with billions in federal funding to supplement prison construction and enact mandatory sentencing laws, states across the nation went on a prison-expansion binge.

In Pennsylvania, during Clinton's eight years in office, seven new prisons were built, increasing the state's prison population from 19,000 to 50,000. Eager to get their hands on federal "bonus" grants, the state legislature passed a law drafted by State Senator Greenleaf, allowing for automatic transfer of juveniles charged with violent offenses into the adult system. So many juveniles were prosecuted as adults that the Department of Corrections built SCI-Pine Grove, a prison devoted exclusively to juvenile offenders sentenced as adults, the overwhelming majority of whom are Black youth. In Pennsylvania, Black and Brown bodies from the state's urban centers are the capital that feeds prison expansion. The state legislature is the 21st century auction block.

In 1993, when President Clinton entered office, the nation's prison population was just over 1 million. By the time Clinton left office in 2000, the nation's prison population had doubled to over 2 million. One in every four African-American men was either in prison or under some form of correctional supervision (probation or parole). It took 20 years for the nation's prison population to expand from 250,000 in the 1970s to 1 million by 1992. By contrast, it took Clinton only eight years to double the nation's prison population from 1 million to over 2 million. In addition to being commander in chief, Clinton was busy being Incarcerator in Chief.

Clinton's campaign on mass incarceration expanded beyond prison expansion and repressive criminal legislation. Clinton also initiated the "One Strike and You're Out" Initiative in Public Housing Policy, prohibiting anyone with a prison record from public housing and thus reducing countless people to homelessness and criminality. According to Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow, Clinton's tough-on-crime rhetoric and action were part of a grand strategy to appeal to the elusive white swing voter to ensure Clinton's reelection.

It didn't have to be this way. If Clinton wasn't so interested in doing anything possible to be reelected, he could have pushed back the right-wing conservatives who were driving the tough-on-crime bandwagon. There was opposition to the Crime Bill and warnings about its future impact on communities of color.

African-American congressmen John Conyers and Craig Washington offered an alternative Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Reform Act that recommended job training, job creation and youth preventive measures, while still including sharp increases in sentencing. This was rejected by Clinton, as apparently it didn't appeal to white voters or sufficiently advocate the mass incarceration of Black and Brown youth.

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