Bill Clinton says he made mass incarceration issue worse

Story highlights

  • The omnibus crime bill that Clinton signed in 1994 included the federal "three strikes" provision
  • Clinton's comments come amid greater focus in the Democratic Party on criminal justice reform

(CNN)Bill Clinton said Wednesday that the crime bill he signed into law as President in 1994 worsened the nation's criminal justice system by increasing prison sentences.

"I signed a bill that made the problem worse," Clinton told an audience at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual meeting in Philadelphia. "And I want to admit it."
    The omnibus crime bill that Clinton signed included the federal "three strikes" provision, mandating life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions, including drug crimes.
    Clinton said Wednesday that he signed the law because "we had had a roaring decade of rising crime" when he entered the White House.
    "We had gang warfare on the streets. We had little children being shot dead on the streets who were just innocent bystanders standing in the wrong place," he said.
    In response, Clinton said, the bill increased the number of police on the streets and enacted gun control legislation. But decades later, Clinton believes the results of the law were mixed, at best.
    "In that bill, there were longer sentences. And most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend," Clinton said. "And that was overdone. We were wrong about that. That percentage of it, we were wrong about. "
    He added: "The good news is we had the biggest drop in crime in history. The bad news is we had a lot people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long."
    Clinton's comments come amid greater focus in the Democratic Party on criminal justice reform.
    President Barack Obama addressed the NAACP's convention on Tuesday, where he derided mass incarceration and outlined his plan to end the practice.
    "Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it," Obama said.
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    What's more, Hillary Clinton has made criminal justice reform a staple of her campaign.
    "Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime, but it does a lot to tear apart families," the former first lady said earlier this year in New York. "Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions."
    Both Clintons, however, pushed hard for the 1994 crime bill.
    "We will finally be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders: three strikes and you're out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door," Hillary Clinton said in 1994.
    This is not the first time Bill Clinton has said he regretted his impact on mass incarceration.
    In an interview with CNN earlier this year, the former President said the problem is the 1994 law "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," he said.