One day after President Obama decried mass incarceration in a speech before the NAACP convention, Bill Clinton owned up to his role in expanding the population of America’s prisons.
“Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform,” the former president said. “But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.”
In 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which offered states billions in funding for new prisons – but only if they adopted “truth in sentencing laws” that would reduce prisoners’ eligibility for parole. The law also established mandatory life-sentences for people convicted of a third violent felony, among other punitive measures. By the end of the Clinton presidency, the number of people in America’s prisons rose by nearly 60%, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
On Wednesday, Clinton defended many other aspects of his crime bill, including its gun control measures and expansion of funding for municipal police forces and after-school programs.
“The good news is, we had the biggest drop in crime in history,” Clinton said. “The bad news is we had a lot people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long.”
The former president went on to say that while he supports “smarter sentencing,” such changes will not solve “the greater likelihood that young African-American men will be arrested and shot and choked.”
Clinton argued that the police killings of African-American men, and the civil unrest that those killings produce, are both products of an erosion of trust.
He praised reforms made by the Los Angeles Police Department for its community dispute resolution program, which requires police to immediately meet with community leaders when a dispute arises over a specific arrest or use of force.
“Everyone in America wants safe streets. They want their kids to be safe,” Clinton said. “So we have to not only do this sentencing work, we also have to rebuild law enforcement/community trust.”
The need for legal reform to be matched with cultural change was a central theme of the former president’s speech.
Clinton argued that South Carolina only passed legislation to remove the Confederate Flag from its statehouse lawn because of a cultural transformation – one inspired by the grace of the grieving families in Charleston.
By forgiving the “deeply troubled man” who murdered their loved ones, Clinton said that the surviving families of the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church had brought their state together, allowing its citizens to move in the direction of truth and reconciliation.
“The great gift those nine families gave to the people of South Carolina, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, is it made them for a brief moment one again,” Clinton said.
On voting rights, Clinton lamented the growth of voting restrictions designed to hamper the turnout of Democratic constituencies, but he also asked the convention to consider whether those same constituencies could have done more to stop such measures from being enacted in the first place.
“We must look at something else, deep inside. How come all those laws passed?” he asked. “Because in state after state after state, we, our people, who vote in every presidential election, have stopped voting in the non-presidential elections.”
Voter turnout hit a 70-year-low in last year’s mid-term elections.
Clinton called on his audience “to make sure, if we fix the voting laws, we vote.”
The former president explained his use of the term “we,” towards the end of his speech, in a line that garnered a standing ovation.
“Now that the human genome has been sequenced we know we’re all colored people, and it’s about time we started acting like it,” Clinton said. “We’re 99.5% the same … the advancement of colored people is the advancement of all of us.”