Barry Saunders

Saunders: Clinton admits problems created by 3-strikes initiative

A politician admitting he was wrong? Why, that’s as unlikely as my favorite rassler, the late Rip “The Profile” Hawk, admitting doubt — or admitting that he bopped his opponent upside the head with a chair while the referee’s back was turned.

Yet, admitting that he was wrong is precisely what Bill Clinton did recently when he said the federal “three strikes” initiative implemented under his watch hurt a lot of people more harshly than they deserved. That judicial travesty mandated, among other things, that anyone convicted of three felonies be sentenced to life in prison.

Clinton’s get-tough on crime act figuratively bopped a lot of young black dudes and poor white dudes upside the head, knocking them down and out for the count. For instance, under Clinton’s policies, judges were forced to impose ridiculously long sentences on people for non-violent drug offenses. If you were arrested for a drug offense – arrested, not convicted – you could be banned from public housing and denied federal financial aid for college. He also embraced the then-dubious, now-discredited claim from the Reagan presidency that crack cocaine had a more deleterious effect on society than powdered cocaine – and thus warranted stiffer sentences.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last week, Clinton ungrammatically conceded this about the law: “The problem is the way it was written and implemented is we cast too wide a net and we had too many people in prison. And we wound up…putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”

There are, of course, no political consequences to admitting 20 years later that unfair policies you championed abetted the destruction of millions of lives, tore asunder tens of thousands of families. The Oxford-educated Clinton knew the likely consequences of his actions when he proposed them – one, that he’d remove the arrow of “soft on crime” from his opponents’ quiver, and two, that people who didn’t deserve lengthy prison sentences would rot behind bars.

There are no consequences, but neither is there any credit to be granted. Dude deserves none. You’d be forgiven for suspecting that part of the reason for the politically astute Clinton’s current mea culpa is to help his wife’s presidential bid: the Washington Post ran a story two weeks ago with this headline: “How Bill Clinton’s policies from 20 years ago created a criminal justice crisis that could help Hillary Clinton in 2016.”

Even some conservative Republicans concur that we as a nation lock up too many people: despite making up five percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Can I get a “What th...?”

The Justice Policy Institute, a think tank that thinks about incarceration, wrote in 2001 “When William Jefferson Clinton took office in 1993, he was embraced by some as a moderate change from the previous twelve years of tough on crime Republican administrations. Now, eight years later, the latest criminal justice statistics show that it was actually... Clinton who implemented arguably the most punitive platform on crime in the last two decades.”

Despite that, many blacks seem to feel a kinship with this cat. Why – because, as a candidate, he went on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” put on some sunglasses and blew a passable sax solo?

Hmmph. Oh well. Perhaps that proves the old adage: a little sax goes a long way.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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