incarceration rates tripled during Clinton era
WASHINGTON—Former President Bill Clinton left a
legacy in the prison system during his eight years in office that was more
punitive than both of his Republican predecessors Ronald Reagan and George
Bush combined, according to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute
Furthermore, in the last two decades the rate of Black
incarceration more than tripled, rising from 1,156 Blacks in jail per
100,000 Black citizens in 1980 when Mr. Reagan took office, to more than
3,620 per 100,000 Blacks in 1999, near the end of Mr. Clinton’s term,
according to JPI’s report, "Too Little, Too Late: Clinton’s
After more than a decade in which the Black
incarceration rate increased by an average of 138.4 per 100,000 per year,
more than doubling the number of Blacks in federal custody between 1980
and 1992, the Black incarceration rate continued to increase by an average
of 100.4 per 100,000 during the Clinton era, according to the report.
"President Clinton stole the show from the ‘tough
on crime’ Republicans," said Vincent Schiraldi, JPI president on
Feb. 19 when his group released its study to reporters. Mr. Clinton was
"right to call for criminal justice reform in a recent Rolling
Stone interview," Mr. Schiraldi continued, referring to an
end-of-his-term interview with the magazine. "He was wrong to do so
little about it while he was in office."
Mr. Clinton’s controversial end-of-term pardons—including
a major drug "kingpin"—illustrate the inconsistency between
Mr. Clinton’s rhetoric and his actions, according to one of the report’s
authors. The Justice Policy Foundation launched a campaign to win pardons
or clemency for 1,000 non-violent drug offenders on whom they had detailed
research and information supporting their appeals, according to Jason
Ziedenberg, co-author of the JPI report. Only 17 persons on that list were
among the more than 400 last-minute pardons issued by Mr. Clinton.
More than 673,000 inmates were added to the state and
federal prisons during the Clinton presidency, and the federal
incarceration rate doubled from its level at the end of Mr. Reagan’s
term, and rose more than 61 percent above the rate at the end of Mr. Bush’s
term, the group found.
There were 17 prisoners per 100,000 citizens in 1988
when Mr. Reagan left office. There were 42 per 100,000 at the end of 1999.
In addition, the total number of prisoners under
federal jurisdiction increased from 80,259 to 147,126, during Mr. Clinton’s
watch, increasing more than it did under the previous 12 years of
Republican rule combined.
The report recommends that President George W. Bush
make good on his campaign promise of "making sure the powder-cocaine
and crack-cocaine penalties are the same," by abolishing federal
crack vs. powder sentencing disparities during this legislative session.
Mr. Ziedenberg also complained that Mr. Clinton vetoed legislation which
would have equalized those guidelines, after a study panel recommended
The report also cites the efforts by the Republican
governors of both New York and New Mexico to ease the so-called "war
on drugs" in favor of increased drug treatment, and it calls on
President Bush to support state efforts to divert non-violent offenders
from prison into treatment, by fulfilling his campaign promise to provide
an additional $1 billion for treatment programs.
"When (Mr.) Clinton came into office, he had a
10-year incarceration boom to outshine," stated report co-author Lisa
Feldman. "As the (former) governor with the nation’s largest prison
population and the most executions, President Bush has no need to prove
his conservative mettle. He has shown he can be tough on crime—now he
has the opportunity to prove he can be smart on crime as well."