Comparing the Goals of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program and Criminal Law Reform Project to Hillary Clinton’s Criminal Justice Reform Platform

By Claire Nagel
Associate Editor, Vol. 22

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has made racial justice and criminal justice reform central issues in her campaign. During the first presidential debate on September 26th, Secretary Clinton responded to a question about how she would bridge racial divisions in the U.S. and improve policing by stating that “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police…But when it comes to policing, since it can have literally fatal consequences…we would put money into [my first] budget to help us deal with implicit bias by retraining a lot of our police officers.” Even more recently, she promised a community of Black voters in Charlotte, North Carolina, who were grieving the fatal police shooting of Keith LaMonte Scott, that she would deliver “end-to-end reform in our criminal justice system – not just half measures, but full measures.”

However, Secretary Clinton’s record on racial justice and criminal justice reform raises questions about her commitment to these issues. As First Lady in 1994, she called for more police on the street, more money to be allocated to prison construction, and harsher repeat offender laws. In 1996, she referred to black youth involved in gangs as “super-predators” with “no conscience” and “no empathy.” Secretary Clinton has since issued a statement saying she regrets the remark. (For a more extensive examination of Secretary Clinton’s record on criminal justice reform, see here.)

The goals of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program and Criminal Law Reform Project (CLRP) provide a useful measure by which to assess Secretary Clinton’s plans for advancing racial justice and criminal justice reform.[1] The Racial Justice Program endeavors to bring an end to the War on Drugs, which disproportionally affects communities of color due to selective enforcement and sentencing disparities. The program also strives to reduce racial profiling by police and end debtor’s prisons which disproportionally affect people of color. The goals of the CLRP are multitudinous. They include curbing police corruption, use of excessive force, and militarization; ending asset forfeiture abuse; repealing excessively harsh sentencing laws; reforming marijuana laws; bolstering indigent defendants’ access to effective legal counsel; and ending mandatory drug testing for people accessing social welfare programming.[2]

In many ways, Secretary Clinton’s platform mirrors the ACLU’s initiatives.[3] For example, Secretary Clinton’s criminal justice reform platform includes a plan to reduce incarceration rates by focusing federal enforcement resources on violent crime rather than simple marijuana possession. Secretary Clinton’s platform also acknowledges the effects of racial profiling and implicit bias on policing, and aims to address the problem through better police training, the development of national guidelines on police use of force, increased use of body cameras, reduced transfer of military equipment to police departments, and legislation to end racial profiling. Secretary Clinton also lays out a plan to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws by reducing the mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses by half, excluding nonviolent drug offenses from repeat offender laws, and allowing currently incarcerated nonviolent offenders to seek fairer sentences.

Secretary Clinton’s plans address several issues upon which the ACLU’s initiatives do not focus, including facilitating successful reentry of formerly incarcerated people by providing funding for re-entry programming, banning hiring practices that discriminate against people with criminal convictions, and reducing felon voter disenfranchisement. Secretary Clinton’s Criminal Justice Reform platform also has some goals in common with the ACLU’s Program to End Mass Incarceration, such as ending prison privatization.

Notably missing from Secretary Clinton’s platform are plans to end debtor’s prisons, end asset forfeiture abuse, provide better access to legal counsel for indigent defendants, and end mandatory drug testing for people accessing social welfare programming. Still, Secretary Clinton’s current platform demonstrates a clear shift from her previous tough-on-crime policies to more progressive policies. Her ambitious but tangible plans reflect much the same sentiment as the ACLU’s initiatives, indicating a genuine commitment to racial justice and criminal justice reform.

[1] Note that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump does not include criminal justice reform, racial justice, mass incarceration, or prisoner’s rights among the issues highlighted on his webpage. However, Mr. Trump is known for his rhetoric on law and order and recently advocated for stop-and-frisk policies which have been ruled unconstitutional.

[2] Several other ACLU initiatives, including the Program to End Mass Incarceration and the National Prison Project (addressing prisoner’s rights) are also relevant to criminal justice reform.

[3] While this post focuses on Secretary Clinton’s Criminal Justice Reform Platform, Secretary Clinton’s plans for achieving comprehensive immigration reform and addressing addiction and substance abuse also acknowledge how these topics intersect with criminal justice.