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Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive takeaways from Arizona's audit results Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE is renouncing the harsh crime bill he signed into law as president and endorsing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE's critique of the system it helped create.
The measure, passed in 1994, has been criticized by many for helping fuel the explosion in America’s prison population.
“The problem is the way it was written and implemented, we have too wide a net,” Clinton said on CNN’s “Amanpour."
“We have too many people in prison. And we wound up spending — 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 that they could live productive lives.”
Still, he said the blame for some of the harshest provisions should fall partially on others whom he suggested would not have voted for the bill had it not included some of the harsher measures.
“But I wanted to pass the bill and so I did go along with it,” Clinton said.
He also offered a critique of the criminal justice system in the foreword to a new publication from the Brennan Center for Justice.
But Clinton reaped electoral benefits from the crime bill when he took a “tough on crime” stance in his 1996 reelection effort.
At a speech in September of that year, he promised to "break the gangs, ban those cop-killer bullets, [impose] drug testing from parolees, improve the opportunities for community-based strategies to lower crime, and give our children something to say 'yes' to,” according to a CNN report at the time.
"The crime rate has come down for four years in a row for the first time in a long time, and I'm proud of that, but it's still too high and we all know it,” he said.
Through the 1990s and into the next decade, however, the crime rate continued to fall while the prison population grew to be the largest in the world.
Clinton’s change of heart is occurring at the same time his wife looks to make criminal justice reform — and reversing the policies of the 1990s — a key part of her own electoral effort.
In the first policy speech of her nascent presidential bid, Hillary Clinton tied the prison system directly to poverty and inequality. “Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty,” she said.
It was a rebuke of the system that the 1994 bill helped to build and that she had supported as first lady.
Bill Clinton said in his interview with CNN that his wife was right to take on the policies he had supported while in office.
"I strongly support what she's doing and I think any policy that was adopted when I was president, any federal law that contributed to it needs to be changed," he said.
The Clintons’ shift is part of a larger bipartisan consensus that the justice system has imprisoned too many people, especially for non-violent or small crimes. It remains to be seen whether this agreement will lead to legislative action.
Some lawmakers want to enact changes to the mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug offenses, which critics say have fueled the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.
Others are wary of changing the minimum sentences, but support making it easier for some convicts to earn time off their sentences if they are willing to participate in programs like job training or drug rehabilitation.
Still others want to rein in civil forfeiture, the process that allows law enforcement to seize and keep property and cash from individuals who are never actually charged with a crime.