On Wednesday morning, Hillary Clinton appeared at New York's Columbia University to discuss crime and criminal justice in one of the first speeches of her 2016 campaign. She advocated putting cameras on police officers and changing mandatory minimum sentences. And she put a fine point on the number of people in our prisons. "It's time to end the era of mass incarceration," she said. "We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe."
The "era of mass incarceration" didn't begin the last time the Clintons were in the White House, but the administration of Bill Clinton was integral to its scale.
The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics tracks the country's prison population over time. Historic data is maintained by the University of Michigan, and it provides a look at the boom in America's prison population over the last several decades.
Between 1983 and 2011, the number of people in federal and state prisons sentenced to a year or longer grew from 405,000 to over 1.3 million -- a jump of 225 percent during a period that the population only grew by about a third.
We've marked the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to offer a contrast that we'll return to below. We have to note, of course, that the rate of violent crime peaked shortly before Clinton took office, and many of those who went to prison during his first few years in office entered the criminal justice system in the previous administration.
Hillary Clinton's speech on Wednesday put a particular focus on the number of black men in prison. Between 1983 and 2011, the number of imprisoned white men sentenced to more than a year increased by 198 percent. The number of black men increased 231 percent. Another important note: In 2000, the BJS broke out Hispanic ethnicity separately, so those increases, including white and black Hispanics at the outset, are probably a bit low.
We'll note again that the increase in the prison population began prior to Bill Clinton. During the administration of George H. W. Bush, the number of prisoners sentenced to more than a year increased by 40 percent. Under Clinton -- who served twice as long -- it went up 46 percent. Under the first Bush, the black prison population grew 46.7 percent. Under Clinton, it grew over 50 percent.
The violent crime rate has continued to slowly drop from the highs it saw shortly before Clinton took office. The administration of George W. Bush saw a much slower increase in the prison population; under Barack Obama, the federal prison population fell for the first time in 30 years. The era of mass incarceration is already receding, somewhat after the era of rampant crime did.
Hillary Clinton's speech was given in a part of New York City that is much safer now than it would have been when her husband was first running. There's an on-going debate as to why that is, but it seems clear that throwing everyone in jail caused a lot of long-term problems for whatever good it did.
In speaking out against that, Hillary Clinton is very much speaking out against her husband.