In the wake of tragedies in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., our country is grappling with the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system and rebuild trust and respect in our communities. In a speech last December, I reflected on how the life and legacy of Robert Kennedy can inspire us to come together and pursue this important work. Today, it’s critical that we ask these questions, place them on the national agenda, and work together to forge solutions.
What would Robert Kennedy think if he could see us today?
I think he would celebrate the enormous progress we have made over the past half century: the advance of democracy and human rights in parts of the world once locked in tyranny; the breakthroughs in health, science, and productivity, delivered by American innovation; and the great strides we have made here at home to build a more just and inclusive society. In many ways, we have moved forward toward that more perfect union of which he dreamed and for which he worked.
But what would Robert Kennedy say about the fact that still today more than 14 million children live in poverty in the richest nation on Earth? What would he say about the fact that such a large portion of economic gains have gone to such a small portion of our population? And what would he say about the cruel reality that African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms? Or that one-third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes, with devastating consequences for their families, communities, and all of us. What would he say to the thousands of Americans who marched in our streets, demanding justice for all — to the mothers who have lost their sons?
We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. Despite all the progress we have made together, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.
We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance, and I hope that the tragedies of the last year give us the opportunity to come together as a nation to find our balance again. We can stand up together and say: Yes, black lives matter. Yes, the government should serve and protect all of our people. Yes, our country is strongest when everyone has a fair shot at the American Dream.
Inequality is not inevitable. Some of the social disparities we see today may stem from the legacy of segregation and discrimination. But we do not have to perpetuate them, and we do not have to give into them. The choices we make matter. Policies matter. Values matter.
Everyone in every community benefits when there is respect for the law and when everyone in every community is respected by the law. All over the country, there are creative and effective police departments proving that communities are safer when there is trust and respect between law enforcement and the people they serve. They are demonstrating that it is possible to reduce crime without relying on unnecessary force or excessive incarceration. There are so many police officers every day inspiring trust and confidence, honorably doing their duty, putting themselves on the line to save lives. They represent the best of America.
We can learn from these examples. We can invest in what works. We can make sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than contribute to unnecessary incarceration or buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.
Of course, these are not new concerns, as I learned firsthand as a young attorney just out of law school. One of my earliest jobs for the Children’s Defense Fund was studying the problem of juveniles incarcerated in adult jails. As director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s legal aid clinic, I advocated for prison inmates and poor families. I saw how our criminal justice system can be stacked against those who have the least power and are the most vulnerable. These experiences motivated me to work for reform, especially for juveniles, a priority as first lady and senator. Yet, our criminal justice challenges have become even more complex and urgent in the years since.
Today, there is a growing bipartisan movement for commonsense reforms. I was encouraged to see changes that I supported as senator to reduce the unjust federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes finally become law. Last year, the Sentencing Commission reduced recommended prison terms for some drug crimes. And, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have led the way with important additional steps. But there is much more to do. Measures that I and others have championed to reform arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences, curb racial profiling, and restore voting rights for ex-offenders are long overdue.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, I outlined proposals to reduce both crime and the size of our prison population. For example, tough but fair reforms of probation and drug diversion programs to deal swiftly with violations, while allowing nonviolent offenders who stay clean to stay out of prison. I called for putting more officers on our streets, with greater emphasis on community policing to build trust while also fighting crime, as well as new support for specialized drug courts and juvenile programs.
These ideas are needed now more than ever — and they are just the beginning. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our current prison population while keeping our communities safe. We should work together to keep more nonviolent drug offenders out of prison and to ensure that we don’t create another “incarceration generation.”
Progress will not be easy, despite the emerging bipartisan consensus for reform. We will have to overcome deep divisions, replenish our reservoirs of trust, and stay focused on the common humanity that unites us all.
To move forward, we can again look back to the lessons of Robert Kennedy. Being the privileged heir to a famous name never stopped him from finding humanity in everyone — from a single mom in Bed-Stuy, to a steel worker in Buffalo, to a student in South Africa. He had the gift of seeing the world through their eyes, imagining what it was like to walk in their shoes. I was honored to follow in his footsteps in the United States Senate, and his example was often on my mind. New Yorkers took a chance on both of us, and I will always be grateful for that. And I followed in his footsteps again in the summer of 2012, when I went to South Africa. One of the places I went was the University of Cape Town to deliver a speech, just as he had decades earlier that continues to inspire today.
Before that speech, I stopped in for what turned out to be my final visit to my friend, Nelson Mandela, at his home in his ancestral village. We reminisced, and I thought about the extraordinary excitement of being at his inauguration in 1994. It was a time of political strife in our own country. I have to confess, my heart had been hardened by all the partisan combat. But then at lunch, the new president of the new South Africa, President Mandela, said something that shook me from my head to my toes. He welcomed all the VIPs who came from all over the world, that he was pleased they were there, and then said this: “The three most important people to me here in this vast assembly are three men who were my jailers on Robben Island.”
Mandela called them by name, and three middle-aged white men stood up. He explained that despite everything that divided them, those men had seen him as a fellow human being. They treated him with dignity and respect. Mandela had later told me when he was finally released he knew he had a choice to make — he could carry the bitterness and hatred of what had been done to him in his heart forever and he would still be imprisoned, or he could open his heart to reconciliation and become free.
Robert Kennedy said much the same thing on that terrible night in 1968, when Dr. King was killed. He spoke of his own loss, and he urged Americans to reach for justice and compassion, rather than division and hatred, quoting Aeschylus on the wisdom that comes through the awful grace of God.
It is in this spirit of common humanity that we will be able to come together again to restore balance to our criminal justice system, our politics, and our democracy.
Click here to read the entire book, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out On Criminal Justice.