It only took Hillary Clinton six months after first calling for sweeping criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration for her to announce on Thursday that she would no longer accept direct donations from private prison lobbyists.
While the Democratic frontrunner for president is still fielding donations from several other sectors that she has criticized, such as the pharmaceutical industry, putting some of her hard-earned campaign money where her mouth is on private prisons is a start — which is more than can be said for some other 2016 presidential hopefuls (ahem, Marco Rubio) who have taken considerable sums from operators of private prisons.
Clinton's decision reportedly came after a series of meetings with several minority advocacy groups that have been demanding that 2016 candidates address the excesses of America's sprawling criminal justice system, including mass incarceration, overcrowded jails, and poor prison conditions, among other issues.
Representatives from Color of Change, a political advocacy group for the African-American community, were among those from organizations like Black Lives Matter, Get Equal, Presente, and United We Dream who met with senior members of Clinton's campaign over several weeks, though never directly with the candidate herself, according to Color of Change's executive director, Rashad Robinson.
"In this critical moment in civil rights and this moment in the Black Lives movement, we were looking to start a dialogue with the candidate's campaign on criminal justice policy and mass incarceration, and other issues that have negatively impacted black folk," he said. "Privatized prisons have contributed to that system and lobbying contributions from private prisons are at the heart of that."
Robinson added that his group also plans to engage with other campaigns in the near future to secure similar commitments from both Democratic and Republican candidates.
The Hillary for America campaign said in a statement that it will also "donate any previous direct contributions from private prison companies or PACs associated with the industry to charity," but did not comment Friday on where that money would specifically be directed.
The former secretary of state plans to "end private prisons and private immigrant detention centers… [and] believes that we should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government," the statement said. "When we're dealing with a mass incarceration crisis, we don't need private industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration."
Campaign contributions from the private prison industry have received relatively little scrutiny, despite some of the biggest for-profit corrections companies, including CCA, GEO Group, and MTC, spending some $32 million on federal lobbying and campaign contributions since 2000, according to a 2012 review of Federal Election Commission data, which included political contributions made by the companies' employees.
The bankrolling tactic appears to have had a substantial effect. The private prison industry doubled in size between 2000 and 2010, while the largest of these corporations, CCA and GEO, currently take in a combined $3.2 billion in annual revenue. Lobbying firms linked to the companies have already contributed more than $288,300 to three of the leading candidates in the 2016 election cycle so far.
Clinton's Ready for Hillary PAC has received $133,246 from lobbying firms linked to GEO and CCA. That figure was slightly lower than the $133,450 Rubio's PACs and campaign have accepted from private prison companies or groups that lobby on their behalf.
The campaigns for Bush, Rubio, and Trump ignored repeated VICE News inquiries about private prisons.
Clinton's record on criminal justice was thrown back into the spotlight earlier this year after she declared that there was "something wrong" with the current system in America in a speech in April. Some advocates pointed to her previous efforts lobbying for 1994 crime legislation pushed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, which authorized $9.7 billion to prison funding and included tougher sentencing provisions that partly contributed to the US's mass incarceration crisis.
During Bill Clinton's presidency, inmate populations rose nearly 60 percent between 1992 and 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In her April speech, Clinton acceded that some of those policies enacted under her husband's watch in the 1990s had "long-lasting consequences," but said that a changed landscape, which includes lower violent crime rates overall, requires a prompt reassessment of laws and policies that contributed to the mass incarceration epidemic.
"We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then," she said. "It's time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn't, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences. So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets. But too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored."
Clinton has made a concerted and public effort in recent months to redress issues on criminal justice, including by conducting a number of private meetings with Black Lives Matter and other activists, who are engaged in an ongoing nationwide campaign against police brutality and biased law enforcement practices.
"Privatized prisons have a lot of power," said Robinson, "but I do think the growing movement of black and brown young people standing up is a major victory and shows the potential for weaning influence of this [private prison] industry that has impacted and hurt so many people's lives."
Clinton hasn't been the only 2016 candidate to rally around the issue. In September, her fellow Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled an ambitious new plan to get rid of all of the US government's private prison and detention center contracts within three years with his Justice Is Not for Sale Act.
Clinton and Sanders both raised more funds in the third quarter than any of their GOP rivals, receiving $28 million and $26 million respectively. Campaign filing reports for the second and third quarter show that Clinton's campaign has continued to take in contributions from drug and health insurance companies, despite the candidate counting those industries among her biggest "enemies" at the first Democratic debate earlier this month.
Last week, Clinton's campaign declined to comment on whether the campaign would continue to accept donations from big pharmaceutical companies in the wake of Clinton's comments, but said the candidate is "committed to protecting consumers from drug companies who put profits ahead of people."
Keegan Hamilton contributed to this report.
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