Nearly 25 years ago, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton led a robust campaign for tougher sentencing laws that would become the 1994 crime bill. At the time, the NAACP called it a “crime against the American people.”
The next quarter century would prove the NAACP right.
“Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history,” human rights advocate Michelle Alexander reminded Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016. “By the end of Clinton’s presidency, more than half of working-age African-American men in many large urban areas were saddled with criminal records and subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits—relegated to a permanent second-class status eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow,” said Alexander, who wrote a book on the subject, The New Jim Crow.
“It is difficult to overstate the damage that’s been done,” she lamented.
Senator Rand Paul’s wife put a number on that damage. The Clintons’ harsh sentencing laws had “resulted in a 500 percent increase in the number of people behind bars in this country,” she claimed in a television interview.
Kelley Paul—who, along with her husband, has been a major advocate for criminal justice reform—reminded Fox & Friends viewers that a major purpose of the current Senate legislation was to “enact prison reforms and sentencing reforms to correct some of the terrible effects of the 1994 Clinton crime bill.”
A few hours after Mrs. Paul said this on Wednesday, President Trump announced his support for the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill supported by Republican senators Paul, Mike Lee, Tim Scott, and Chuck Grassley, and many Democrats too.
“It rolls back some of the provisions of the Clinton crime law that disproportionately harmed the African-American community,” Trump said. “You all saw that, and you all know that—everybody in this room knows that,” he added, as black faith and law enforcement leaders standing behind him nodded in agreement.
“It was very disproportionate and very unfair,” President Trump continued.
There were many players who brought the president and the country to this moment. Many progressives and libertarian-friendly Republicans have been fighting for such reforms for years. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, arguably played one of the largest roles. So did rapper Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian.
The fight for criminal justice reform has not only been bipartisan but transcultural.
But that’s not what’s important. For all the criticism the president receives—both fair and unfair—he just announced his integral support for a bill that stands to impact many lives. No less a Trump foe than the New York Times declared in an editorial before the announcement that this was finally “A Real Chance at Criminal Justice Reform.”
The Clintons and the 1994 crime bill don’t deserve all the blame. Drug warrior presidents Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes were also no friends to non-violent offenders. The incarceration rate had risen significantly before Bill Clinton took office.
But Michelle Alexander is also right. No modern president has done more to damage the lives of non-violent offenders than Bill Clinton, and particularly black Americans who might have made mistakes but paid draconian prices.
To say America’s criminal justice system was in good shape before Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 would be patently false. But in trying to take the crime issue away from Republicans, his administration made a bad situation worse.
And President Trump just took a big step towards fixing it.