Opinion

Hillary Clinton talks a good game on criminal justice reform. But will she deliver?

It would mean throwing out most of her previous political commitments

Hillary Clinton gives a speech at Columbia University.

Hillary Clinton gave an important speech on Wednesday laying out her vision of criminal justice reform. While she is not the most inspiring orator, she hit most of the right notes from a reform perspective, including some important issues — especially incarceration and mental health — that are often overlooked. But if Clinton really wants to address the roots of the problem, her agenda could stand some major strengthening.

A good example of the problem Clinton faces is something she mentioned positively in her speech: recent reform of the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

First, a bit of background. The discrepancy originally came from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed with gigantic bipartisan majorities. The law gave a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, while requiring 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. Not coincidentally, crack was (wrongly) perceived at the time as a drug for poor blacks.

Speaking scientifically, this is a preposterous distinction. Crack and powder cocaine are literally the exact same drug, one the hydrochloride salt and one the freebase. The only difference is in the possible routes of administration. Even then, the difference is essentially meaningless: one can easily convert powder cocaine to freebase with some baking soda and a hot plate, or back again with some vinegar. It's nonsense to treat them as different substances.

But when Congress tried to reduce the 100-1 sentencing disparity in 2010, with massive Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the best they could manage was to reduce it to 18-1.

This is not just a pathetically inadequate move, but doesn't even get policy pointed in the right direction. What has been obvious to policy thinkers for many years, and is now slowly taking hold even in places like Kentucky, is that the "tough on crime" approach to drugs has been a colossal failure. A treatment- and harm reduction-centered approach, which moves away from cops and jails wherever possible, shows far more promise.

In other words, there should be no mandatory minimums at all, especially for very addictive drugs like cocaine.

But that alone isn't enough. The milquetoast drug reform hailed by Clinton does not bode well for the other people who make up the majority of American prisoners: violent criminals. As Keith Humphreys points out, the large majority of people in state prison (which contain most American prisoners) are in for violent crimes — and only 20 percent for drug offenses. Violent felons are a lot less sympathetic than nonviolent drug offenders, but if one is really going to tackle mass incarceration, that's where the bulk of the effort is going to have to go.

As Mark Kleiman wrote in his great book When Brute Force Fails, there are good reasons to think we can have both less crime and less punishment, by clever and humane application of criminal justice resources. His strategy is complex and multifaceted, but the heart of it is noting that the most important part of criminal deterrence is the swiftness and certainty of punishment — which are directly undermined by resource-sucking things like vindictive, long sentences. Making sure most offenders are actually punished quickly is vastly more important for controlling crime than making a social statement with very long sentences for whatever crime touched off the latest moral panic.

However it will take political courage, something not often in great supply when it comes to Democrats and crime. As my colleague Marc Ambinder points out, Democrats, including both Bill and Hillary Clinton, have historically been strong supporters of stupid, brutal anti-crime policy.

And as Greg Sargent writes, all this takes place in the background of a Republican Party that is attempting to pin the problems of places like Baltimore on big government, as opposed to bad policy that could be changed. Right now House Republicans are attempting to slash funds for urban renewal, including drastic cuts to the federal lead abatement program. (Ironically, low-level lead poisoning is likely responsible for much of the great 20th century crime wave.)

However, all in all, this was a pretty good speech, and represents another important marker for Clinton's project of placing herself firmly about two steps left of her husband's presidency. It would mean throwing most of her previous political commitments out the window, but if she were to make good on the thrust of this speech, it would be a dramatic improvement from the status quo.

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