Why It Matters That Hillary Clinton Is Talking About Mass Incarceration and Voter Reform

Unlike her prime competitor, Bernie Sanders, who has vied for the Democratic nomination by taking strong stands on the issues that divide his party - most notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership - Hillary Clinton has been heavily criticized for her avoidance of such contentious issues, instead making two of her most clearly articulated stances the partisan items of voting rights and criminal justice reform. At her campaign launch on Roosevelt Island on Saturday, Clinton described her intention to install universal and automatic voter registration as well as extended voting periods in order to allow for more Americans to take to the ballots, and in late April, while speaking at the David N. Dinkens Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University, Clinton called for the end of mass incarceration by reexamining prison sentences and fostering trust between police officers and the communities they serve. Yet while Clinton's emphasis on these two issues may appear to be a cop out from more controversial policy items, it also raises important questions about the troubling confluence of race, crime, and political participation in America that her fellow Democratic candidates are not taking seriously enough. Insofar as Clinton remains the only prominent candidate to spend significant time campaigning for the amendment of traditional voting practices, while also supporting drastic penal reform - two issues which are undoubtedly racialized and inextricably related - she is also the only prominent candidate to focus on the empowerment of the minority voter within the democratic process.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has been engaged in a heavily partisan penal populism that has allowed for the proliferation of increasingly draconian criminal justice policies to be realized by Republicans and Democrats alike. Examining the racial composition of American prisons today reveals that while these policies have affected an immense swath of the American population, the demographic most profoundly impacted by penal populism is undoubtedly the black, urban poor. According to the NAACP, in 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated, while black and hispanic men made up 58% of the nation's incarcerated population. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the 2012 presidential election, blacks made up only 13.4% of voters and as of 2008, 30% of African Americans were not registered to vote.

While on voting day in November, 2016 all those serving time in our nation's prisons will be unable to vote, nearly 6 million more Americans out of jail will be barred from voting due to unnecessarily severe voting laws which disqualify potential voters on the basis of possession of a criminal record. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, a felony conviction disqualifies an individual from registering to vote, while in some states a misdemeanor conviction - something as minor as public intoxication or marijuana possession - can determine an individual's voter status. This disenfranchisement of the criminal population disproportionately affects blacks and perpetuates the racial biases of the criminal justice system onto the electoral process.

When the incursion of the carceral state is realized most profoundly in communities of color, when blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites, when bail pleas are so prohibitively expensive that wealthy, white teens can buy their way out of drug possession charges while their black contemporaries face years behind bars, and when three strikes policies, zero tolerance policies, and "broken window" policing almost exclusively target minority communities, blacks suffer not only through unwarranted incarceration but also through a systematic exclusion from political participation. Historically, however, this is not a new phenomena.

Since the passage of Fifteenth Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote and thus threatening the white, racial hegemony over political participation, covert advances the democratic rights of the black voter have been varied, ranging from outward voter intimidation at Southern ballot boxes in the late 20th century, to compromising literacy tests, to poll taxes. The disenfranchisement of the criminal population is only the newest iteration of an institutionalized denial of the black community's political voice.

For Hillary Clinton, thus, the contemporaneous focus on voting laws and mass incarceration is not only a moral initiative, but a democratic, and now capital D, Democratic one. For years, the Gallup "Most Important Problem" poll has shown that Americans believe both crime and race relations to be two of the top non-economic issues facing the nation. As candidates on both sides of the aisle, including Republicans Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, discuss the need for criminal justice reform, a drastic change to the penal culture of the U.S. seems imminent. The political ramifications of altered sentencing practices and the potential decarceration of hundreds of thousands of inmates held on petty drug charges will be most prominent amongst minority, voting age individuals. Whether or not such individuals will be able to participate in the electoral process will be determined according to dated electoral policy, which thus far only Clinton has seriously discussed. Clinton, therefore - who has been outspoken in her advocacy for the repeal of voting laws, which ban people with criminal records from participation in the political process - is far more well poised to handle the political effects of a changing American penal culture than her contemporaries within both the Democratic party and in the GOP.

While American policing, prosecutorial, and carceral practices are increasingly revealed to be in drastic need of reform, yet the individuals whom the failure of these institutions affects most remain largely disenfranchised, Clinton's strong, liberal stances on penal and voting culture are incredibly important. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and most recently Kalief Browder call attention to the urgency of the demand for comprehensive reform at all levels of the carceral state.

The 2016 election poses an important opportunity for sweeping reform from the top built out of the changing discussions of criminal justice and police practice taking place from the grassroots in the U.S. today. Ultimately, then, while Clinton's avoidance of more controversial topics such as the Trade Deal and her inability to articulate herself through attention-grabbing, polemical rhetoric may hinder some aspects of her campaign, it does not underscore her overall political message. Clinton bills herself as a candidate for Americans, concerned more with domestic issues affecting the social welfare of the average American citizen. If her speech at her campaign launch on Saturday was any indication, Clinton appears aimed to prove herself as a genuine, trustworthy connection between her constituency and Washington, taking to heart their concerns in an effort to "revitalize our democracy." By focusing on penal and voting reform instead of the Trade Deal, Clinton has provided real, articulated solutions to some of the country's least democratic practices and thus appears more poised than her contemporaries to deliver on her promises.