Tuesday, February 19, 2008

President Clinton's Prison Legacy

Too Little Too Late
Preserving law and order has historically been a Republican issue. Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson's losing opponent in the 1964 presidential race, was the first to campaign on crime control in an attempt to counter the prevailing "liberal" mood of the 1960's. Following Goldwater's lead, Richard Nixon called for an increase in punitive crime control measures and a "war on drugs" that led to an increase in incarceration for low-level drug offenders.2 The Republican National Committee's unleashing of the now famous "Willie Horton" advertisement during the race between Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis solidified the rhetorical advantage held by Republicans in the law and order arena.


President Bill Clinton: The Incarceration President
When William Jefferson Clinton took office in 1993, he was embraced by some as a moderate change from the previous twelve years of tough on crime Republican administrations. Now, eight years later, the latest criminal justice statistics show that it was actually Democratic President Bill Clinton who implemented arguably the most punitive platform on crime in the last two decades. In fact, "tough on crime" policies passed during the Clinton Administration's tenure resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.

Although Republicans are normally thought to hold the tough on crime mantle, in President Clinton's first-term (1992-1996), 148,000 more state and federal prisoners were added than under President Reagan's first term (1980-1984), and 34,000 more than were added under President Bush's four-year term (1988-1992).

When President Clinton Stole the "Get Tough on Crime" Show
When President Bill Clinton included "the war on crime" as a major tenet in both his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, the past ten years had already witnessed the largest incarceration increase in the nation's history.4 During his 1992 campaign, to illustrate his resolve, President Clinton actually interrupted his campaigning to return to his home state of Arkansas to oversee the execution of mentally retarded death row inmate Ricky Ray Rector.5

Throughout its tenure, the Clinton administration consistently supported increased penalties and additional prison construction. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 provided state and municipal governments with $30 billion to add 100,000 new police officers, to build more prisons, and to employ more prison guards, as well as funding for crime prevention programs.

Crime Control Impact: A shift in resources from communities to corrections
The money and resources spent by governments and private interests on the criminal justice system is so large that it is having a profound impact on our economy, and as a result, our society. In 1994, just two years after President Bill Clinton took office, there were 1.4 million prison and jail inmates in the U.S. and by 1997, the criminal justice system employed more than two million people,6 and cost taxpayers more than $70 billion a year. One estimate suggests that by 2002, the criminal justice system will cost taxpayers more than $200 billion annually.7 Today, there are more people working in the criminal justice system than are working in community and social service occupations (like employment, vocational, mental health and substance abuse counseling).8 Ironically, these are the occupations that are most likely to be geared towards preventing crime, and helping to rehabilitate ex-offenders, as opposed to occupations that are designed to arrest, prosecute, detain and imprison. With two million people behind bars in the U.S., and 4.5 million people on probation and parole, America ends the Clinton-era with at least 8.5 million people who are either under the control of the correctional system or working for the criminal justice system.

While everyone is affected by the nation's quadrupling of the prison population, the African American community has borne the brunt of the nation's incarceration boom. From 1980 to 1992, the African American incarceration rate increased by an average of 138.4 per 100,000 per year. Still, despite a more than doubling of the African American incarceration rate in the 12 years prior to President Clinton's term in office, the African American incarceration rate continued to increase by an average rate of 100.4 per 100,000 per year. In total, between 1980 and 1999, the incarceration rate for African Americans more than tripled from 1156 per 100,000, to 3,620 per 100,000.

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