With the exception of gay rights, no public-policy debate has shifted more dramatically in my adult lifetime than the debate over crime. In 1992, when Bill Clinton flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a mentally retarded African American murderer, the move helped him in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary. In 1994, Clinton’s crime bill—which among other things, expanded the death penalty, encouraged states to lengthen prison sentences and eliminated federal funding for inmate education—garnered the votes of every Democratic Senator except one.
To those who see Hillary’s new crime agenda as a flip-flop, her campaign has a rejoinder: Different policies make sense at different times. As Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson tweeted, “HRC policy on internet might also be different than WJC policy in 1994. Not b/c he was wrong but b/c times change.”
The problem with this argument is that many of the crime policies the Clintons supported in the 1990s were probably wrong even back then. Yes, the crime bill did some good: It put more cops on the street and increased penalties for sex crimes. But it also helped spawn the very “era of mass incarceration” that Hillary now denounces. It’s not just that the bill allocated almost $10 billion in federal-prison construction money. It only allocated it to states that adopted “truth-in-sentencing” laws that dramatically increased the amount of time criminals served. As NYU Law School’s Brennan Center has noted, the number of states with such laws rose from five when the bill was signed to 29 by Clinton’s last year in office. Over the course of Clinton’s presidency, the number of Americans in prison rose almost 60 percent.