NEW YORK — Hillary Rodham Clinton issued an impassioned call for overhauling an "out of balance" criminal justice system Tuesday, using her first major public policy address as a presidential candidate to reflect on the recent unrest in Baltimore and push for an end to "the era of mass incarceration."
Speaking at an urban policy forum at Columbia University, Clinton recounted the recent killings of unarmed black men by white police officers, arguing that the chaos and rioting sparked by their deaths should prompt a national reckoning with longstanding and profound economic and racial inequalities.
"The patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable," she said. "We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America."
Clinton spoke in the days after violence and protests have swept through the streets of Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a spinal-cord injury while in police custody. With her remarks, she joined a bipartisan group of politicians who are rejecting the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s — including those trumpeted as a major achievement by the administration of her husband, Bill.
Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute, a nonprofit focused on crime policy, said the belief in those years that longer sentences would mean more safety is being set aside. "What Clinton talks about today reflects a repudiation of that thinking," he said. "On some level, everyone has evolved."
The emerging presidential field has been tested by the startling wave of rage that swept the streets of Baltimore. With smoke still rising from the city's burnt buildings, many have struggled to calibrate their political response.
Martin O'Malley, a former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor who might challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination, returned from Europe to walk the streets of his city.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, commenting during a Republican campaign swing in Puerto Rico, called both for an investigation into Gray's death and "a commitment to the rule of law." Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who's pushed for sentencing changes in Congress, blamed the unrest on a "breakdown of the family structure" while joking that he was glad a train he was traveling on through downtown Baltimore "didn't stop."
Clinton proposed body cameras for all police departments, alternative punishments for low-level offenders, and more money for mental health and drug treatment programs.
She tied the problem to her broader campaign theme of inequality, citing "cycles of poverty and despair" in inner city neighborhoods. "We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population," she said. "We don't want to create another incarceration generation."
In December, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $263 million for police body cameras and additional law enforcement training — a request Congress has yet to act on.
Still, Clinton praised the bipartisan cooperation forming on the issue, specifically mentioning Paul's work with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat.
"It is rare to see Democrats and Republicans agree on anything today," she said. "But we're beginning to agree on this: We need to restore balance to our criminal justice system."
Paul did not return the favor, putting out a campaign statement criticizing her for "emulating" his proposals and "trying to undo some of the harm inflicted by the Clinton administration."
After decades of politicians vowing to get tougher on crime, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton ran for president with a promise to tackle doubling homicide rates, a pledge he fulfilled in 1994 with the passage of the Violent Crime Control Act.
That law, particularly a Republican-backed provision, resulted in longer terms for prisoners and more police on the street. "It's facile to say she's repudiating something her husband was involved in when the whole country moved in that direction," said Jeremy Travis, who attended the bill signing as director of the National Institute of Justice.
Nearly 20 years later, Hillary Clinton's wide-ranging speech showed how strikingly the politics of law and justice have shifted in recent years. "It is stunning," said Travis, now president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "I live this stuff and I keep waiting for a day like this and there it is."