It's hard to pay attention to policy when pins and sniper bullets are whizzing by us, but it's worth pretending as long as the candidates are also willing. To wit: Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech on crime in Philadelphia one week ago. In it, she notably reversed an earlier stance on the sentencing disparity regarding cocaine-related drug crimes. She said she would favor scrapping the mandatory minimums for small amounts of crack cocaine, bringing the punishment for mainly-black crack users in line with that of predominantly white users of powder cocaine. This is an important distinction; the sentencing disparity has filled jails with first-time nonviolent offenders posing a low-level threat to society--which only escalates the longer they are segregated from it.
Clinton's views on sentencing retroactivity, for the tens of thousands who have been locked up under the current cocaine guidelines, are of equal importance. Commuting prisoner sentences to terms they would have served under the new law is, of course, the right thing to do. But in Iowa, Clinton told viewers of the Black/Brown debate: “In principle I have problems with retroactivity," she said. "It’s something a lot of communities will be concerned about as well." Which communities? Why?
The drug wars, addressed intelligently on our site by former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, are not a by-the-wayside policy issue on which Clinton can smudge her former stances without scrutiny. What's more, this anti-crime gambit looks to be an attempt to reverse a monthslong pattern of tacking rightward on criminal justice policy (back when Clinton still had a "general election strategy"). In New Hampshire, for example, Clinton tweaked Barack Obama for his liberal stance on “criminal defendants' rights” and his “extremely progressive record” in Chicago. Who knows to what that refers.
By the Philly address--never having answered that important question on retroactivity--Clinton was putting $1 billion up for grabs among states that want to commit resources to lowering rates of recidivism. But being unjustly punished and backsliding into crime are not totally unrelated issues; longer jail terms erode workplace skills, fossilize social attitudes and drain meaningful support systems--all of which are critical to the well-being of a sucessful parolee. That she would pay for her ambitious $4 billion plan by identifying "unnecessary and outdated corporate subsidies for elimination" (rather than housing and processing costs for thousands of crack offenders) only spotlights the blinders that make real reform in government seem like make-believe.