Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton would eliminate the federal mandatory five-year sentence for crack cocaine users as part of a $4 billion-a-year anti-crime initiative designed, in part, to steer many nonviolent offenders away from prison.
Her plan also would revive several programs started by her husband's administration, including federal funding of community-oriented prosecutors and police officers.
The New York senator outlined her proposal in a speech in Philadelphia, a key city in her contest with Sen. Barack Obama for voters in Pennsylvania's April 22 presidential primary. Top goals of her plan include reducing homicide rates and the amount of prison space occupied by nonviolent offenders, many of them drug users.
The issue of crime has played a comparatively small role in this year's presidential race, which is dominated by the economy and Iraq war. In introducing Clinton, however, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said many of his constituents "are more worried about Al Gangster than al Qaida." Philadelphia had 392 murders last year.
Clinton's position on minimum sentencing has drawn little notice, although she backs a Senate bill that would eliminate the five-year mandatory prison term for persons prosecuted in federal courts for possessing at least five grams of crack cocaine. The bill, and her initiative, would not affect state prosecutions.
Because black Americans are disproportionately higher users of crack than are whites, many groups want to end policies that punish crack users much more harshly than powder cocaine users, who are predominantly white.
Financing the proposal
Clinton said she would pay for the $4 billion initiative with savings to be identified by a commission she will assign to "identify unnecessary and outdated corporate subsidies for elimination." Critics of deficit spending generally urge campaigns to be more specific in saying how they will pay for new programs.
Under Clinton's proposal, states would compete for $1 billion in annual grants to combat recidivism. It would "promote tough but fair" changes to probation practices and to existing programs meant to keep many nonviolent drug offenders out of prison.
The goal is to make punishment more certain for those who violate their probation, she said, while also enhancing efforts to help former drug users stay clean and thereby avoid prison. Clinton said the currently one-fourth of all former inmates who committed nonviolent crimes return to prison "as violent offenders."
Clinton's plan would help local governments hire 100,000 new police officers to focus on high-crime locations. It would spend $250 million a year on "community-oriented prosecutors," who also would work from, and focus on, specific neighborhoods.
Both programs were launched under her husband's presidency, but the Bush administration eliminated or sharply reduced them.
"It is a sad day in America when the president can find hundreds of billions of dollars to police another country's civil war," Clinton said, "but cuts funds for police officers right here at home."
Her plan calls for federal grants or special efforts by the Justice Department to help local governments battle gang violence, drug dealing and gun trafficking. Grants also would help cities and counties operate after-school programs, home visits by nurses and "early intervention mentoring programs" designed to steer "at-risk kids" away from crime.
Other provisions would target identity theft and online child exploitation. Clinton also renewed her call for reinstating the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004.