Clinton's plan to end mass incarceration may come up short

February 18, 2016

On Tuesday afternoon, Hillary Clinton spoke about how her presidency would combat systemic racism, noting that "America's struggle with race is far from finished."

Her speech comes a little over a week before the South Carolina Democratic primary, where she is in a competitive race with Senator Bernie Sanders for the large numbers of black voters there. She discussed several issues confronting black and Latino communities, referencing mass incarceration, employment, and environmental justice. Her proposals to address these inequities are part of a larger opportunity agenda.

Clinton's most detailed proposals focused on criminal justice reform, likely responding both to increased concerns over the treatment of black Americans and recent criticism that the Clinton administration ramped up racialized mass incarceration. She claims that her proposals, including $2 billion to close the school-to-prison pipeline, would work toward "end-to-end reform" in criminal justice, but what does the evidence say about her approach?

School-to-prison pipeline

Clinton stated that the school-to-prison pipeline is due to overly harsh disciplinary policies that lead to early exits from school and argued that reforming school discipline will help break that pipeline. Multiple studies show that black students are more likely to be both disciplined and suspended, and suspensions can lead students to drop out of school completely. Dropping out of high school is especially problematic for black students, given that 60 percent of black men without a high school diploma will go to prison at least once.

The rise of school resource officers (SROs)—law enforcement officers who have the power to arrest students—also contributes toward increased discipline that takes students out of school. It was a SRO, seen in this controversial video, who dragged a female high school student out of her desk and through her classroom. The presence of SROs substantially increases the odds of student arrest, making more literal the implied connection between school and the criminal justice system.

Clinton is right to focus on these issues, as a Texas study involving millions of students found that 97 percent of disciplinary consequences were at the discretion of principals and school supervisors. Finding ways to discourage discipline that removes students from the classroom would likely go a long way in disrupting the school to prison pipeline.

However, these students would still face myriad other issues, such as underperforming schools, bleak job prospects upon graduation, and heavily policed communities that could still lead toward arrest and incarceration.

Sentencing reform:

If elected, Clinton aims to “end the era of mass incarceration” through a mix of sentencing reforms and alternatives to prison like drug treatment programs and rehabilitation.

However, the federal corrections system, which is what the sentencing reforms that Clinton puts forward would touch, holds just 13.5 percent of the total prison population. The impact of these proposals, while significant, will not go far enough to achieve her stated goal.

The majority of people in prison in the United States—nearly 1.4 million as of 2014—are housed in state prisons, and, as our State Prison Population Forecaster shows, it will require far-reaching reforms at the state level to reduce the collective number of people behind bars.

Clinton also proposes targeting nonviolent drug offenders. While this makes sense for the federal corrections system, where individuals with no history of violence account for more than half of the 95,000 drug offenders in federal prison, this approach will fall short at the state level, where they are a much smaller proportion.

Given the reality in the states, whose policies the president can't directly affect, a national plan to reduce mass incarceration through sentence reductions and incarceration alternatives that apply only to nonviolent offenses will be insufficient. In order to make a meaningful dent in lowering the national prison population, Clinton would need cooperation from state leaders who must be willing to grapple with sentencing reforms that include violent offenses.

Clinton's speech is her fullest articulation to date of her views on systemic racism. Her statements demonstrate that she is seriously considering problems affecting the black community. While her proposals for reforming the criminal justice system certainly show promise in dealing with one of the largest sources of racial disparities, this "end-to-end" reform would likely still leave many people entangled in the carceral state. 

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