WASHINGTON -- As the primary election spotlight begins to focus on South Carolina and its diverse pool of potential voters, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has come under scrutiny for supporting her husband's 1994 crime bill.
Former President Bill Clinton's notorious legislation spurred an unprecedented surge in mass incarceration, particularly among African-Americans. As author Michelle Alexander reported in her viral piece for The Nation, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve The Black Vote,” "prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983.”
Hillary Clinton, who had nothing to do with drafting the bill or signing it into law, is being chastised for pushing it as first lady. Alexander slammed her for helping to sell the bill by invoking the now-discredited, superpredator myth, which wrongly predicted an exploding number of lawless young people.
“They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” Clinton said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘superpredators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
Alexander overlooks that the quote came from a speech Clinton gave in January 1996. The crime bill had been on the books for two years by then. Still, the quote has come back to haunt Clinton (a Google search shows it has been mentioned more than 300 times).
There is another element of the story that hasn't been mentioned much. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is building a serious challenge to Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, appears to have invoked the superpredator myth as well. And he did so in a speech addressing the crime bill before it passed.
Sanders, who was in the House of Representatives at the time, was skeptical about the legislation when it was being debated. Though he would vote for its passage, he did have strong progressive-minded criticisms, lamenting the country’s mass incarceration problem and income inequality. “We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails,” he said.
Sanders also added this caveat:
It is my firm belief that clearly, there are people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them.
Sanders doesn’t explicitly invoke the so-called superpredator idea in this statement. But it seems likely this was his reference. In the context of the crime bill, it's hard to imagine that his remarks were about serial killers. This doesn't necessarily make him non-progressive. It just underscores that Sanders, too, got swept up in the crack-era fearmongering of the time. He did, after all, support the bill, despite his reservations.
Watch Sanders' speech: