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Crime Bill Politics: A Flash Point In Democratic Race

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

South Carolina holds its Democratic primary tomorrow. And during their events in the state, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been talking about ways they would change the criminal justice system of today, but they're also being challenged on their positions on the issue as far back as 20 years ago. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hillary Clinton was at a campaign fundraiser in a private home in Charleston, S.C., talking about criminal justice reform when Ashley Williams, a young Black Lives Matter activist, held up a banner that read, we have to bring them to heel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: We got somebody saying here, we have to bring them to heel.

ASHLEY WILLIAMS: We want you to apologize for mass incarceration.

CLINTON: OK. We'll talk about that.

WILLIAMS: I'm not a superpredator.

KEITH: I'm not a superpredator. That scratchy audio comes from a YouTube video, and there's a lot to unpack in just that short exchange. First, there's the word superpredator. The term was in widespread circulation in the mid-1990s. It fed on fears of gangs, and prominent criminologists warned a booming youth population would lead to bloodbaths. Clinton, in 1996 at a campaign event for her husband, used that term when talking about gangs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators - no conscious, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.

KEITH: Bring them to heel - as in force to obey. Nicholas Turner is the director of the Vera Institute of Justice which researches crime policy. He says the term superpredator was coined by a professor at Princeton.

NICHOLAS TURNER: He was talking about the sort of young, new breed of, you know, ultraviolent, remorseless teenager, presumably black.

KEITH: But Turner says it was a myth, flat out wrong. And the man who built up the idea of the superpredator has since said he regrets it.

TURNER: He basically admitted, you know, wrongdoing and apologized for the creation of that term.

KEITH: Yesterday, Clinton said in a statement, quote, "looking back, I shouldn't have used those words, and I wouldn't use them today." But beyond the words, this brings up something else that looms large in this year's presidential campaign - the 1994 crime bill signed by Bill Clinton and supported at the time by his wife. Many blame it for the problems of mass incarceration of people of color today. Then Congressman Bernie Sanders voted in favor of the bill, as did two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus. Here he is at a hearing on the bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: I think there is no disagreement among all of us that we need strong law enforcement.

KEITH: Sanders and others point to the assault weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act, the money for a hundred thousand new police officers all contained in the massive crime bill. Sanders had concerns, too, about the expansion of the death penalty and all the spending on prisons rather than poverty reduction, but like just about everyone in those days, Sanders also struck a tough-on-crime tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Clearly there are people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them.

KEITH: The early 1990s were a very different time. America was coming out of the crack epidemic. Violent crime was at its peak. News reports led with carjackings and gang violence. Again, Nicholas Turner.

TURNER: The politics of the time was really about, how tough can you be? No one wanted to be seen as being weak, and that continued to feed the public sense that we were really in a dire moment.

KEITH: He says the U.S. was already 20 years into a more punitive approach to criminal justice. The prison population was already huge. The 1994 crime bill wasn't the source of mass incarceration in America. It was simply an accelerant.

DARRELL JACKSON SR.: Now, looking at things in retrospect, it's always 20/20.

KEITH: Darrell Jackson Sr. is a South Carolina State Senator and a pastor. He is also a Hillary Clinton supporter.

JACKSON SR.: There were some things in that crime bill that was tough and in retrospect perhaps were it too tough, OK? But look at New York City prior to that. Look at other places when there was crime and there weren't enough cops on the street and they didn't have the money they had.

KEITH: Flash forward to today. Both Democratic candidates for president and quite a few congressional Republicans support rolling back some of the toughest criminal justice policies of the 1990s, and arguments about being weak on crime are hardly ever heard on the campaign trail. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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