The New York Democratic primary debate was stereotypically New York: loud, brusque, and in-your-face; full of bluster and nuance at the same time. The CNN questioners were sharp. NY1’s Errol Louis was sharper, forcing a reckoning with an issue that looms large here: Why Hillary Clinton, who is leading at least partly because of overwhelming African-American support, has a hard time publicly reckoning with the impact of the 1994 crime bill, which her husband signed into law, and for which she expressed support? (Senator Bernie Sanders also voted for the bill; I’ll get to that later.)
Louis asked Clinton whether the bill—which included the Violence Against Women Act, an assault-weapons ban, and funding for community policing, as well as harsh mandatory federal sentencing and eliminating inmate education programs—“was a net positive or do you think it was a mistake?” Clinton did what any politician would: She equivocated. When Louis pushed her, using a South Carolina voter’s question about why she wouldn’t admit it was a mistake, she went beyond previously stated positions and said, grudgingly, “I’m sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that have had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives.”
Clinton went on: “I’ve seen the results of what has happened in families and in communities. That’s why I chose to make my very first speech a year ago on this issue, Errol, because I want to focus the attention of our country and to make the changes we need to make. And I also want people… especially I want—I want white people to recognize that there is systemic racism. It’s also in employment, it’s in housing, but it is in the criminal-justice system, as well.”
This is a fine answer—except I don’t get why Clinton won’t express more heartfelt regret over not just the crime bill’s unintended consequences but some of its founding premises. The provision eliminating funding for inmate education haunts me. It represented an awful repudiation of the idea of rehabilitation. Coupled with increased sentences and funds for prison construction, it’s hard to forgive.
I say this as someone who thinks—in fact, knows—that the effects of the federal crime bill on mass incarceration are exaggerated. I say it as someone who quarrels with the simplistic notion peddled by some Sanders supporters that the bill was intentionally designed by the evil Clintons to result in what Michelle Alexander rightly calls “the new Jim Crow.” Decent people, concerned about an increase in violent crime that was terrorizing African-American neighborhoods, including most of the congressional Black Caucus and Bernie Sanders, supported the bill. Prescient, decent people opposed it. I would love to see a serious reckoning with what so many people got wrong—and Clinton missed that opportunity. If we miss it in the Democratic primary, then we’ve missed it, because it’s not going to come up in a general election debate with a Republican—except to debate whether it went far enough.