Former President Bill Clinton offered a more even-tempered analysis of his criminal justice legacy on Friday, in an apparent effort to smooth over the controversy surrounding his contentious exchange with protesters the day before.
“So I did something yesterday in Philadelphia. I almost want to apologize for it, but I want to use it as an example of the danger threatening our country,” Clinton told attendees at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Erie, Pennsylvania.
The former president then dove back into disagreements about the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Prevention Act, a controversial piece of legislation that has become a point of criticism for both Hillary Clinton, who supported it as first lady, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who voted for it as a congressman. During a campaign appearance in Philadelphia on Thursday, a pair of Black Lives Matter activists criticized the former president for passing the law, while calling his wife a "murderer" who was guilty of "crimes against humanity."
“It is true [the bill] had longer sentence provisions,” Clinton said Friday. “It is true that they led to some people going to jail for too long in ways that cannot be justified. And I went to the NAACP convention last year and said that and said it was way past time to change.”
Clinton went on to say that in his attempt to "vigorously defend" his wife on Thursday, both he and the protester ended up "talking past" one another.
"We've gotta stop that in this country," said Clinton. "We've gotta listen to each other."
While Clinton has admitted in the past that the 1994 crime bill contributed to an era of mass incarceration -- “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” he said last year -- his defense on Thursday lacked that air of self-reflection.
Clinton explained the harsh sentencing measures of the legislation as necessary to ensure its passage, and pointed to the fact that the bill had many African-American supporters at the time. He also seemed to suggest that despite its catastrophic side effects, the new laws had played a part in lowering rates of gun violence and crime, a conclusion that hasn't been borne out by empirical evidence.
In one particularly heated section of the back and forth, the former president appeared to respond to criticism of Hillary Clinton's decades-old comments regarding child “super-predators,” a now-debunked myth about kids with "no conscience, no empathy" who were committing crimes in the '90s.
“I don’t know how you would describe the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out in the streets to murder other African-American children,” he said, appearing to suggest that the "predators" were not the children themselves. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [Hillary] didn’t. ...You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.”
The former president's remarks drew immediate backlash, as people accused him of revisiting the very sort racially tinged rhetoric that had been used to push through the 1994 crime bill in the first place. To make matter more complicated, Hillary Clinton has already apologized for her comments on "super-predators."
But despite his changed tone on Friday, Clinton once again pointed out that the political climate was different in the early 1990s, as the nation sought to deal with a crime wave that had many cities in a chokehold.
"You're living in a country where young African-Americans think their number one threat now is from police officers," he said. "When I signed that crime bill, they knew what their number one threat was. It was from gangs, making money out of cocaine, taking teenage kids, hopping them up, giving them guns and telling them to go kill other teenagers to prove their bones. It's different."