WASHINGTON -- A week after meeting with Black Lives Matter activists in New Hampshire, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton attempted on Tuesday to defend her husband's record on criminal and racial justice, while also acknowledging that the policies had disproportionately affected minorities.
Under former President Bill Clinton, the black prison population grew over 50 percent as violent crime rates peaked. In response, Clinton signed an omnibus crime bill in 1994 that established mandatory minimum sentences, even for minor offenses, and a federal "three strikes" provision that imposed life sentences for anyone convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions. (The former president has said he regrets these policies.)
As first lady, Clinton strongly supported the legislation. She was careful to acknowledge this difficult history at a town hall in North Las Vegas on Tuesday.
"Decisions were made in the '80s and '90s to deal with what was at that time a very high crime rate that was particularly affecting poor people, people of color in the cities," Clinton said. "I think that a lot was done that went further than it needed to go and so now we are facing problems with mass incarceration."
"We have too many people in jail and in prison who committed low-level, nonviolent offenses, and we have too many people who haven’t been convicted of anything but can’t afford bail and sometimes are there for months, if not years," she added.
The Black Lives Matter activists who met with Clinton last week expressed frustration with the candidate's refusal to take personal responsibility for "perpetuating white supremacist violence." But Clinton's careful remarks on Tuesday may prove equally frustrating: She used the passive voice, only saying "decisions were made," when discussing the spike in incarceration rates. The activists want more from Clinton, arguing that she should acknowledge "the deep underlying conversation around how those policies were drafted" at the time.
At the town hall, Clinton endorsed the recommendations of President Barack Obama's task force on policing, arguing that the federal government should set an example for states by not providing funds for police equipment that militarizes communities during confrontations. She pointed out that the first major policy speech of her campaign was about reforming the criminal justice system.
Clinton also responded to a question about gun control by saying that many "Stand Your Ground" laws need to be rewritten, since those laws provided a legal justification for the fatal shootings of black teenagers such as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
"Yes, there is a role in extreme situations to defend yourself and defend your home, but unfortunately what we've seen too much of in the last few years is a spate of people who have reached for a gun before they really figured out what was going on," she said. "They've been much too eager to use that gun. We've seen it with policing and we've seen it with civilians."
Clinton also criticized the Republican presidential candidates for ignoring criminal justice issues, noting that there was "not one word about dealing with criminal justice and mass incarceration and that black lives matter," during their first debate on Aug. 6.