Sentencing Law and Policy: Candidate Clinton laments mass incarceration, but proposes only a "national debate" to address it
by Prof. Douglas Berman
by Prof. Douglas Berman
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."