Hillary Clinton on several occasions has done what could be called a mea culpa for hubby, Bill's still much talked about and much maligned Omnibus Crime Bill that he spear-headed to Congress in 1994. Her most memorable about-face was in a speech in Harlem last February when she called for "end-to-end" criminal justice reform, more support for African-American homeowners and a hefty $20 billion boost to tackle Great Depression joblessness in poor, and minority communities. She has struck that theme and pledge several times on the campaign trail.
However, this has not silenced the usual suspect Hillary critics on the Left, nor many Blacks who back Clinton, but still slap a guilt by marital association number on her for the bill. Clinton on Hillary's campaign trail and in interviews has slid at times between an angry defense of the bill to a recant of some of the dire consequences of the bill.
While the draconian bill was the brainchild of Reagan and Bush Sr., they could not have gotten it through a mostly Democratic-controlled Congress back then. But Clinton did. He muscled it through Congress. The bill shelled out $22 billion to the states and feds to hire more police and prosecutors build new prisons, and courts, and establish crime commissions.
It criminalized thousands, mostly blacks and Latinos, for petty crimes and drug possession, ignited the biggest prison-police boom in U.S history, spurred dozens of states to adopt three strikes laws, led to the deadly rash of racial profiling cases, and widened the gaping racial disparities in prison sentencing. The anti-crime legislative mania also tacitly encouraged more states to disenfranchise thousands of ex-felons. The law added more than 30 new provisions for the death penalty in federal law. To no surprise, the majority of those that await execution are black men. In 1993, there were less than a half million blacks in America's jails. That figure has soared to more than 2 million today with still about half of them Black.
Hillary's public pledge to change that takes the battle against crime in the direction that it should have gone even twenty years ago. And that's putting massive resources into investment and repair in poor and minority communities, while committing to fight to end the blatant racial disparities in arrests, sentencing, imprisonment, and the death penalty that have become the trademark of the criminal justice system. But, the suspicion and criticism is that that these are empty promises she makes only to appease her core back supporters, and after repeated and withering slams by Black Lives Matters factions.
This ignores too much. It's true that incarceration is not and never has been the answer to the root cause of crime, However, most Americans in the early 1990s were in no mood for sociological answers to crime. Polls showed that a majority of Americans were in near hysteria over the rising crime numbers, a soaring murder and drug use rate, and the urban riots following the Rodney King beating and the acquittal of the LAPD officers in the beating. They clamored for a crackdown, and that included a significant number of blacks who felt under siege from gangs and drugs.
The majority of the Congressional Black Caucus members voted for the bill mostly in response to demands from their fearful constituents about raging crime. Some, like Clinton, have since regretted that vote, and have sharply criticized the harsh crime approach then. But they, like Bill and many others, have had two decades to see the racially corrosive effects of the bill. Crime is simply not the politically expedient tough on crime issue and the issue to pander to the public and voters that it was for politicians then.
So, it's not necessary for Hillary to admit shame and guilt over a law passed two decades ago that much of the public wanted and drew broad bi-partisan support from Democrats, including many black Democrats. If Hillary backed the bill then, it was because a majority of Americans also backed it. To knock her for not being divinely oracular about the terrible downsides of the bill, defies logic, common sense and history.
The challenge then is not to hold Hillary's feet to the fire for a policy from the past that's had and has bad consequences for the present. But to hold her feet to the flame to deliver on her pledge to push for meaningful criminal justice system reforms, and programs and initiatives to aid the urban poor once in the White House. The omnibus crime bill is, and forever, will remain part of Bill's legacy, the good, and the much larger bad of it. He'll undoubtedly continue to be called on the carpet for it. But Hillary shouldn't be.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a consultant with the Institute of the Black World and an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio-one. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Pacifica Radio.