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In new Crime Policy, Hillary Clinton Embraces Obama Agenda

Hillary Clinton on Friday announced new policies for criminal justice reform, advocating a break with “mass incarceration.”
Image: Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a town hall meeting at Grinnell College Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, in Grinnell, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)Charlie Neibergall / AP

Hillary Clinton on Friday announced new policies for criminal justice reform, advocating a break with “mass incarceration.” The move firmly places the Democratic presidential front-runner’s crime policies closer to the administration of President Barack Obama than to that of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton’s new plan includes cutting prison time for non-violent offenses and reducing the application of mandatory minimum sentences. Her proposal would not only reduce federal mandatory sentences going forward, but also create a process for early release of some inmates currently behind bars. She would also expand a “safety valve” rule that gives judges more discretion to reduce sentences when warranted – a fix backed by Democratic reformers like Sen. Pat Leahy and libertarians like Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who’s seeking the GOP nomination.

Clinton says she would also reform the excessive use of “strikes” to lengthen prison sentences. Under federal law, many past crimes are counted as “strikes” against a defendant, adding years to any new sentence. Clinton aides say she would cut non-violent drug offenses from that list of crimes.

A convict’s past drug use shouldn’t automatically add prison time, many advocates say – arguing that judges are better positioned to make that decision than one-size-fits all national rules.

The federal use of “strikes” was expanded under President Bill Clinton’s crime bill. In 1995, Clinton said that tough-on-crime rule “slammed the door” shut on career criminals.

The former president reversed course on that legislation this summer, however, telling a NAACP gathering the law had actually “made the problem worse.”

Those comments can be seen as a path for Hillary Clinton to make a larger break with what was once a key part of her husband’s domestic legacy – or simply a factual reassessment in line with mounting data about shortcomings in the drug war.

The surge in the prison population, fueled partly by laws that mandated long sentences regardless of individual circumstances or judges’ assessment of a given defendant, has drawn mounting bipartisan criticism. In particular, the racial disparities in the war on drugs have become a campaign issue, with organizers from Black Lives Matter confronting candidates in both parties.

“This is (a) productive first draft, focusing on non-violent drug offenses. It will be important that Clinton’s platform expands to address a host of other issues such as solitary confinement, diversion programs and other alternatives to incarceration,” DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist with the Black Lives Matter movement, told MSNBC.

In announcing Clinton’s plan Friday, aides pointed directly to racial inequities in criminal sentencing, noting that while mandatory minimum rules might sound like they would apply equal harshness to all defendants, prosecutors are twice as likely to charge black defendants with offenses covered by the minimums in the first place.

Clinton’s overall reform proposal also includes ideas she has outlined previously on the campaign trail, such as ending the disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentencing for current inmates, “banning the box” for federal employment – delaying when the government learns of an applicant’s criminal record – and prohibiting racial profiling. While most police departments disavow any racial profiling and Justice Department guidelines caution against it, there is no federal law banning it.

The announcement from Clinton comes after a week when President Obama touted criminal justice reform, issuing a new order to combat potential discrimination against former convicts in federal hiring, and visiting a treatment center to tout rehab in New Jersey. Clinton had began rolling out parts of her plan last week, and the Friday afternoon announcement ensures her proposals are public before a candidates forum in South Carolina Friday night, broadcast on MSNBC.