"It's time to end the era of mass incarceration," Hillary Clinton proclaimed in a scheduled criminal-justice speech Wednesday that gave her the opportunity to address sentencing reform in the context of the troubles in Baltimore. It was a lukewarm effort in keeping with Hillaryland rules. Say as little as possible. Offend no interest group. Let handlers alert the media that the candidate is engaging in a big policy shift that is bound to attract young voters, even if the big policy shift leaves out specific positions on, say, marijuana legalization or the death penalty.
I don't think it was smart to combine sentencing reform and the use of force by police in the same speech. We do not know whether Baltimore police caused the death of Freddie Gray, who died from a spinal cord injury after being taken into police custody. State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby made a damning case as she announced she was charging six officers with murder or lesser charges. Still, we haven't heard from the cops yet. People thought a white cop had killed an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri, only to learn police Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in self-defense. Sometimes facts support the very understandable suspicion that race is the defining element when police use force; think of the video of a white South Carolina officer shooting an unarmed African-American in the back multiple times. Sometimes they do not. Until the facts are in, police deserve the same presumption of innocence that is the right of every American. Clinton should have said as much.
Instead, she focused on the need to reduce incarceration rates, as keeping offenders "behind bars does little to reduce crime." This is a change of tune. The Washington Post duly noted that Clinton is breaking with her husband's 1994 crime law, without mentioning his legislation by name. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act created tough penalties for drug offenders and dedicated $30 million to hire local police and build prisons. Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann declared he was delighted Hillary Clinton made criminal-justice reform the focus of the first major policy address since she announced her candidacy for president. But he also was disappointed that Clinton never addressed her support of draconian drug law sentences.
Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson, however, did tweet that the reason Hillary's take is different from Bill's is not that Bill was wrong in 1994 but that "times change."
I was disappointed in Clinton's willingness to throw all law enforcement — federal, state and local — in one pile as she talked about "excessive incarceration." Federal mandatory minimum sentences have fallen disproportionately on African-Americans and doomed low-level offenders — often with no history of violence, sometimes with no prior convictions — to years, even decades, in prison. As I've written for decades now, Congress needs to return sanity to the system so that minimum sentences reflect the low end of the corrections spectrum, not the harshest punishment imaginable.
Gray, 25, was swept into a different vortex — local law enforcement — with at least 18 arrests since 2007, mostly on drug charges, and with more than one arrest in certain months. Until his untimely death, Gray was a repeat offender for whom arrest meant not draconian time but a turnstile experience. Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, believes the circumstances of Gray's death "are quite suspicious," but not all facts are in. Otis also thinks that any 25-year-old with 18 arrests has "made his decision on how he's going to live," so don't blame criminal penalties for his crimes.
Clinton had to give this speech, given that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a declared White House hopeful, has been a hard-core critic of Washington's war on drugs. "If he's the Republican nominee and she's the Democratic nominee," opined Tom Angell of the pro-legalization Marijuana Majority, it will be embarrassing for Clinton.
The person who really showed up Clinton is mother and grandmother Toya Graham of Baltimore. While Clinton cites her status as a grandmother as a factor behind her position of the day, Graham has a flesh-and-blood stake in Baltimore. She showed up at Monday's riot because her 16-year-old son had told her he planned to participate and she did not want him to become the next Freddie Gray. When Graham saw her son in a mask holding a rock, she lost it and clobbered him. Graham later said to CBS News that she told her son: "You will not be throwing rocks and stones at police officers. At some point, who's to say that they don't have to come and protect me from something?"
Clinton wants to be president, so she simply said Baltimore should and does "tear at our soul." If Clinton cannot speak Toya Graham's plain truth, she has no business running.