WASHINGTON — Pointing to a wave of violence in Baltimore, Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the nation’s criminal justice system has gotten “out of balance” and must be restored through steps such as the use of body cameras by every police department in the country.
“It’s time to change our approach,” Clinton said in her first major policy address since launching her presidential campaign earlier this month. “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”
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. Clinton condemned those instigating further violence, saying it disrespected the Gray family and only compounded the tragedy.
“The violence has to stop,” she said.
In a speech at Columbia University, Clinton spoke of protests over policing in Ferguson, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina; and in New York, and repudiated policies dating to her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency that lengthened prison terms while putting more officers on the streets. “We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population,” she said. “We don’t want to create another incarceration generation.”
Clinton said federal funds for local and state law enforcement should not be used to buy “weapons of war” and said every police department in the country should have body cameras “to record interactions between officers on patrol and suspects. That will improve transparency and accountability. It will help protect good people on both sides of the lens.”
She voiced support for alternative punishments for lower-level offenders and the need to address substance abuse and mental illness, which she said came up repeatedly during her recent campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton also cited what she described as an “unmistaken and undeniable” pattern of violence against unarmed black men in the country and the unfairness of black men being more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms.
“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” Clinton said.
Criminal justice reform, however, should not be placed in a silo and separated from a lack of economic and educational opportunities in many communities, Clinton said. And many people suffer the consequences of roughly 1.5 million “missing African-American men” who are imprisoned, making them unable to care for their children or provide for their families.
“We can’t separate the unrest we see in our streets from the cycle of poverty and despair that hollowed out those neighborhoods,” she said.
Clinton said criminal justice reform had found some bipartisan consensus in Congress, noting the work of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican seeking his party’s presidential nomination, along with that of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat.
“It is rare to see Democrats and Republicans agree on anything today but we’re beginning to agree on this,” she said. “We need to restore balance to our criminal justice system. Of course it is not enough just to agree … we actually have to work together to get the job done. We have to deliver real reforms that can be felt on our streets.”
Paul’s campaign quickly responded, saying that Clinton was glossing over her husband’s record on criminal justice that she supported as first lady.
“Not only is Hillary Clinton trying to undo some of the harm inflicted by the Clinton administration, she is now emulating proposals introduced by Sen. Rand Paul over the last several years, and we welcome her to the fight,” said Paul spokesman Sergio Gor.
In December, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $263 million for police body cameras and additional law enforcement training. The request came after Obama held a series of meetings with law enforcement officials, Cabinet members and civil rights leaders following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson.
The president’s proposal would have allocated $75 million over three years to help states purchase body cameras. The money would have paid for about 50,000 devices, though Congress never acted on the president’s request.
Clinton spoke at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, named after the former New York mayor.
KEN THOMAS AND JILL COLVIN, Associated Press
Thomas reported from Washington.