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After Black Lives Matter Spat, Bill Clinton Admits Crime Bill Put 'Too Many People in Jail'

The run-in has reignited issues of criminal justice and prison reform ahead of a crucial April 19 primary in New York.

by Liz Fields
Apr 11 2016, 4:55pm

Photo by Christopher Millette/Erie Times-News via AP

Following a highly-publicized spat between Black Lives Matter activists and Bill Clinton over his administration's controversial 1994 crime bill, the former president this weekend acknowledged the fallout of the legislation, which many have blamed for ushering in the era of mass incarceration, and identified remedies for its shortcomings.

At a New York organizing event for his wife Hillary Clinton over the weekend, the former president said that African American leaders, including members of the NAACP, stood behind his administration's 1994 crime bill and praised his efforts to reduce crime. But Bill Clinton also conceded that certain provisions of the law caused prison populations to soar in the years after he signed the legislation.

"We need prison reform," Clinton told his wife's supporters at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York City on Sunday. "The prison thing was overdone. Too many people in jail for too long for nonviolent offenses."

Clinton also listed a raft of policy ideas proposed by his wife that would help undo some of the more damaging provisions of his administration's bill. The policies include shortening prison sentences, reinvesting in education and training, and banning employers from forcing potential job candidates to disclose their prior criminal convictions.

The acknowledgement was a stunning turnaround from a incident on Thursday when Clinton was filmed vehemently defending the bill, while shouting down at a group of Black Lives Matter activists at an event in Philadelphia. The protesters were rallying against the crime bill, and reprised anger over Hillary Clinton's use of the term "superpredator" in 1996 to describe gang members during a speech she gave as first lady to advance the legislation.

Instead of backing away from the racially-charged term, as Hillary Clinton did in February when she told the Washington Post that she "shouldn't have used those words," and "wouldn't use them today," her husband doubled down during the altercation with protesters last week.

Related: Bill Clinton Yells at Black Lives Matter Protesters, Defends Violent Crime Bill

"I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children," a fired-up Clinton told the protesters. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens."

"You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter!" the former president continued.

Clinton also said that the crime bill helped bring about record lows in crime and murder rates in the years after, and said that the lives of those saved by the legislation also "mattered."

The moment was recorded on cell phone video and circulated widely after it was posted to YouTube. Some commenters saw the former president's blow-up as a revelation of hypocrisy by the Clintons, as the former secretary of state has campaigned heavily around issues of criminal justice. Bill Clinton later said he regretted the run-in with Black Lives Matter activists, but stopped short of an apology.

Both Clintons spent this past Sunday at black churches across New York City, working to mend any tears in their strong support from the African-American community over the resurgence of the crime bill issue ahead of the New York state primary on April 19. Black voters have been a major component of Clinton's winning coalition so far and will be key to help her maintain her lead in New York.

Supporters at the Bill Clinton organizing event on Sunday defended the former president, who has a habit of veering off-message on the trail, saying he simply misspoke. Others said the ensuing debate has provoked much-needed substantive debate on issues that hit especially hard for New Yorkers.

"You don't want to give the opposition any more ammunition than they already have," John Burgess, 46, a native New Yorker said of Sanders supporters who have criticized Hillary Clinton's use of the term. "But I welcome any debate, especially from someone who opposes my views."

"The issues the Black Lives Matter community has raised are really very important," said Risa Levine, a Clinton volunteer and native Brooklynite. "I'm glad they're talking about it and they're making the rest of the country aware."

Related: Hillary Clinton Wants You to Remember How New York She Is Ahead of State's Primary

The back and forth over the crime bill between both campaigns and their supporters, has generated heavy media attention this week, putting the spotlight back on the candidates' records on criminal justice and race — arguably two of the most divisive issues in the US.

It is also comes days before a highly anticipated debate in New York on April 14, which will be followed by the state's pivotal primary five days later.

In New York City, criminal justice reform is particularly consequential for minority communities, who since the 1990s have accused the city of racial profiling and unlawful stops under aggressive "stop and frisk" policies implemented under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

Sanders has also made the issue central to his New York campaign leading up to the primary. The Vermont senator addressed Bill Clinton's tense exchange with activists at a community meeting on Saturday evening at Harlem's Apollo Theater.

Speaking about the 1994 crime bill, Sanders berated the former president for trying to "defend the indefensible" and called on him to apologize. He also noted the racist undercurrents of the term "superpredators," which he said was used to characterize African Americans.

"I think we all know what that term meant in the context that it was said years ago," Sanders said. "We know who they were talking about."

Related: Why Donald Trump's Kids Won't Be Voting for Him in New York's Primary

In the last two decades, criminal justice experts and minority communities alike have singled out the Clinton administration's Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 for triggering the mass incarceration of African Americans across America. The most controversial aspects of the law sent 100,000 more police officers to patrol the streets; significantly increased sentences for repeat offenders through a three-strikes provision; and defunded education programs for prisoners that were designed to assist with reintegration and cut back recidivism. The law's implementation led prison populations to soar by more than a million people, many disproportionately black and Latino.

In the years after 1994, an expanded police force and more active policing did presage a significant drop in crime in the years nationwide, but many minority communities have asked at what cost?

Bill Clinton acknowledged some of the consequences of the law on Sunday, saying that increase in police presence and heavy-handed tactics has meant that "too many of our young people feel like they can get shot going down the street, because of their race."

Yet, he also cited the actions of police officers during the San Bernardino shooting last December, saying that "we need [both] police reform and police. What is the answer?"

Clinton said that to start with, communities need more "police on the street who look like the people they're policing" and called for increased neighborhood dispute resolution and the demilitarization of police departments across the country.

Related: Sanders Wins Wyoming Caucuses for Eighth Victory Over Clinton in Last Nine Contests

During his speech, Clinton also referred to Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in an illegal police chokehold in the summer of 2014 for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Garner's daughter, Erica Garner, is an outspoken Sanders surrogate, while his mother has campaigned for Hillary Clinton.

"The most important thing is to stop [people] from getting hurt in the first place," Clinton said. "Selling illegal cigarettes on the streets of New York is not a capital offense."

At Sunday's organizing event, supporters also defended Hillary Clinton's commitment to criminal justice reform, saying that the former secretary of state made the remarks about "superpredators" some two decades ago.

Now, they say, Clinton has put policy proposals seeking to end police brutality and mass incarceration are the center of her campaign. Those proposals include plans to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, end racial profiling, move away from prison privatization, and restore voting rights to convicted criminals who have served their sentences.

"They're criticizing her for something that she said 20 years ago and you have to remember that crime in New York at that time was terrible," said Deborah Thomas, 60, an opera singer who has lived in New York for 35 years. "You could not walk the streets at night and be sure you were going to get home. As a woman, I never rode the subway after rush hour."

Levine also noted the lack of media attention on Sanders, who voted for the 1994 crime bill.

"I do think there's a double standard," Levine said. "Hillary wasn't even in elected office [when the crime bill was passed], Bernie Sanders was. He voted for it."

Related: Clinton: Republicans Hoping to See Me in Handcuffs Are Living in a 'World of Fantasy'

Sanders, who was a member of the House in 1994, has defended his vote for the bill, saying that his "aye" was hinged on provisions banning assault weapons and ending violence against women. In a February statement, Sanders said he had "serious reservations" about portions of the legislation on mass incarceration and the death penalty, and voted unsuccessfully several times to dilute those provisions.

"Through the neglect of our Government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence," Sanders said in a speech on the House floor at the time. "All the jails in the world, and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country, and all of the executions in the world, will not make that situation right."

The debate over heavy-handed policing tactics has been reignited by the Black Lives Matter movement, which since the summer of 2014, has protested en masse over hundreds of police killings of unarmed black people, including Eric Garner in Staten Island and Sean Bell, who was infamously shot by New York police 50 times in Queens on the night of his wedding in 2006.

Although the Black Lives Matter movement has publicly stated it will not endorse any one candidate this election, several family members of the victims have staked their support and even stumped for candidates. Garner's daughter, Erica Garner, is currently active with Sanders's campaign, while Nicole Bell, Sean Bell's fiancée, and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Dontre Hamilton and Garner have campaigned for Clinton.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields