In the winter of 1996, at Keene State College in New Hampshire, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke forcefully about policing and criminal justice on behalf of her husband’s re-election campaign.

The “challenge,” Clinton declared, “is to take back our streets from crime, gangs and drugs.” Boasting of the administration’s putting more cops on America’s mean streets, she called for “an organized effort against gangs, just as in a previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob. We need to take these people on … They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience. No empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

The president, she promised, had ordered “a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere.” She urged Americans “to be a part of this anti-crime, anti-gang, anti-drug effort.”

Times have changed, and Clinton has changed with them, although she still likes the ring of “concerted effort.”

But in a debate last month, what the now-presidential candidate called for was “a concerted effort to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system.” Beyond finding it “incredibly outraging to see the constant stories of young men … who have been killed by police officers,” Clinton was appalled that “one out of three African-American men may well end up going to prison. … [A]nd very often, the black men are arrested, convicted and incarcerated … for offenses that do not lead to the same results for white men.”

Today’s bestselling crises are no longer “crime, gangs and drugs.” Today’s crowd-pleasing concerns are “systemic racism” and “mass incarceration.” And a lot of the same politicians who wooed voters a couple decades ago by vowing to “take on” the “superpredators” — brushing aside softheaded talk about “how they got that way” — now seem shocked (shocked!) that “these people” turned out to include many young black males, and that “bringing them to heel” often meant sending them to jail.

Fact is, Hillary and Bill Clinton both have admitted to some regrets, or anyhow reconsideration, regarding their tough-on-crime stances years ago, and particularly regarding the big 1994 federal crime bill that did much to swell U.S. prison populations. But it wasn’t just them. The Clinton crime bill passed with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

(And yes, Bernie Sanders, who today deplores our “broken” criminal justice system, voted for it.)

All over the country in the 1990s and beyond, no-mercy politicians cracked down on crime with “three strikes” laws and mandatory minimums and broken-windows policing tactics and sex offender civil commitment laws and on and on — and sent prison populations soaring.

Today, politicians and great thinkers all across the spectrum find the results of yesteryear’s anti-crime, anti-gang, anti-drug efforts, well, “incredibly outraging.”

This massive shift in attitudes and policy prescriptions on crime has of course tracked a stunning decline in crime rates in America. The rate of violent crime has plunged by half over the past 20 years. On its face, that happy development might explain many changes of heart and make a course correction reasonable. Tough-on-crime politics peaked not long after (we now know) crime levels themselves peaked in the early 1990s. Now that we’ve largely taken back the streets, it may, in fact, be time for a cease-fire and an assessment of where our concerted efforts went too far.

But seldom do we hear that sort of cautious, measured reflection. The anti-crime rhetoric of 20 years ago was extravagant (“superpredators!”) and so is today’s anti-criminal justice rhetoric (“systemic racism!”) We seem to have gone from suffering a catastrophic crime epidemic two decades ago to suffering a catastrophic injustice epidemic today — with no social health in between.

If so, maybe this lurching from one imbalance to another has something to do with unbalanced leadership.

One difficulty in making sense of America’s wild ride on the crime issue is that we don’t know how much of a role sending more criminals to prison has played in reducing crime. Numerous researchers have concluded that more incarceration has made only a trivial contribution; others think it may account for a third of the crime decline. What’s clear is that crime is a bafflingly complex social phenomenon, and we just don’t know.

Two decades ago, politicians far and wide sounded pretty sure that throw-away-the-key policies would help. But today, with prisons full and streets more peaceful, they are not claiming credit but proclaiming a shiny new outrage — one somebody else must be responsible for — that is a fine a new reason to vote for them.

What makes all this so frustrating is that crime on the one hand and injustice on the other are two horrible evils that we have to rely largely on government to combat. But this record of serial demagoguery makes it hard to have confidence that those who lead us are up to these tasks.

The best advice for citizens is simply to listen skeptically and critically to everything politicians and ideologues of any variety say about crime and criminal justice — and to keep one’s eyes on facts. Here are a few of note, from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics “Prisoners in 2014” report:

• Slightly more than 1.5 million inmates were held in state and federal prisons in 2014, the large majority (87 percent) in state facilities.

• Black males were incarcerated at a rate nearly six times the rate of white males, and also at two-and-a-half times the rate of Hispanic males.

• Minnesota’s overall incarceration rate is the fourth lowest in the country (behind Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts) and well under half the national rate.

• Nationally, among all state prisoners, 53.2 percent are incarcerated for violent crimes. Drug offenses account for 15.7 percent. Drug possession accounts for 3.6 percent.

• Among federal inmates, just over half are incarcerated for drug offenses. Combining the state and federal populations, all drug offenders make up 20 percent of the grand total.

It is likely that county jail populations and offenders under other kinds of supervision (probation, etc.) increase the overall role of drug and other nonviolent offenders in the criminal justice system.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.