Hillary Clinton offered her fullest comments on dealing with race and justice issues in America on Wednesday, telling an audience at Columbia University that it is time for the United States to come to terms with “unmistakable and undeniable” racial patterns in policing.
“As a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families,” Clinton said, listing a number of incidents in the last year that have found black men killed at the hands of law enforcement. “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”
She continued: “We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance and these recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as a nation to find out balance against.”
Clinton’s comments – which came at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University - are the first time the presidential candidate reacted publicly and in person (she reacted on Twitter on Monday) to the death of Freddie Gray and the Baltimore riots that rocked the city earlier this week.
Clinton followed up her comments with some of her first policy proposals since launching her campaign two weeks ago, reforms she said that need to be felt “on our streets, in our courthouses, in our jails and prisons, in communities too long neglected.”
Clinton linked the need for reforms to income inequality issue, too, an issue her campaign has said she will champion on the trail. “We also have to be honest about gaps that exists across out country, the inequality that stalks our streets,” she said, arguing that good policing will only do so much if issues like unemployment and poverty are not also addressed.
The presidential candidate called for federal funds being spent to “bolster best practices” not “to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.” Her suggestion come after many on the left and right have questioned the militarization of law enforcement during protests in Ferguson, Missouri last year.
Clinton’s stance on criminal justice has changed with the times. As first lady, she lobbied for her husband’s 1994 crime bill, parts of which are now viewed as counterproductive to reducing crime.
The former secretary of state also called for ending policies of mass incarcerations, arguing that a “missing husbands, missing fathers, missing brothers” level “profound consequences” on families.
“Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crimes but it does a lot to tear apart families and communities,” Clinton said of low-level offenders. “We need to start understanding how important it is to care for every single child as though that child was our own. “
She added: “It is time to change our approach. It is time to end the era of mass incarceration. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.”
Clinton touted judicial reform as a bipartisan issue, name-checking Republicans like Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential candidate.
“We should make sure that every police department in the country has body cameras to record interaction between offices on patrol and suspects, that will improve transparency and accountability it will help protect good people on both sides of the lens,” Clinton said, calling for body cameras to be the “norm everywhere.”
Among Clinton’s other prescriptions: probation reform, bolstering treatment for mental health and drug addiction and looking at alternative sentences for lesser offenses, specifically those committed by young people.
“And please, please, lets us put mental health back on the top of our national agenda,” Clinton said. “Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions.”
At a Manhattan fundraiser on Tuesday, Clinton said the events in Baltimore were “heartbearking. … The tragic death of another young African-American man. The injuries to police officers. The burning of peoples’ homes and small businesses. We have to restore order and security. But then we have to take a hard look as to what we need to do to reform our system.”
An evolution on criminal justice
The measure significantly built up police forces across the country, funded prisons to increase capacity and put in place tougher sentences, including for some young offenders.
In 2007 in Iowa, during Clinton’s first run for president, she acknowledged an “unacceptable increase in incarceration across the board,” and has since joined the bipartisan ranks of those who support changes to mandatory minimum prison terms for certain crimes, an effort heralded by President Barack Obama in his second term.
And, more recently, Clinton has questioned decriminalizing certain drugs, a policy prescription that many advocates have said would alleviate prison crowding in the United States.
Just Monday, in a foreword to a compilation of criminal justice reform prescriptions published by the Brennan Center for Justice, President Bill Clinton admitted the effects of the law, which he championed as he was shifting to the right in the face of a Republican-led congress and at a time that being tough on crime was popular.
“Our nation has too many people in prison and for too long - we have overshot the mark,” Clinton writes, but also defended much of the effort. “So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets.”
Clinton’s policy proposals on Wednesday mirror her passage in the book.
The book, “Solutions: America’s Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice,” includes a chapter by Clinton. Proving what a crowded political space the issue is, it’s sandwiched in between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s proposals, the former a potential Republican presidential candidate and the other already in the race.