Pointing to the Baltimore riots, Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday called for sweeping criminal justice reforms and mandatory body cameras for law officers across the country that she said would help end a “pattern” of cops killing innocent black men.
Plunging her presidential campaign into the national debate over race and policing, Mrs. Clinton also proposed ending racial profiling and alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses to help correct a justice system that she said was locking up too many black men and ripping apart too many black families.
“It’s time we end the era of mass incarceration,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech at Columbia University in New York, which was the first major address of her White House run.
The proposals by Mrs. Clinton, who has made several overtures to liberals, moved her campaign to the left of the past two Democrats elected to the White House: President Obama and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, whose law-and-order agendas led to tougher sentences for convicts and the construction of more prisons in the 1990s.
“There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes. And an estimated 1.5 million black men are ‘missing’ from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death,” said Mrs. Clinton. “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 our balance again.”
Mrs. Clinton noted bipartisan efforts in Congress to take on criminal justice reform, including complementing legislation co-sponsored by one of her Republican rivals for the presidency, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. The bipartisan bill would keep minors out of adult jails.
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“It is rare to see Democrats and Republicans agree on anything today, but we’re beginning to agreeing on this: We need to restore balance to our criminal justice system,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Now, of course, it is not enough just to agree and give speeches about it. We actually have to work together to get the job done.”
Mr. Paul was quick to point out Mrs. Clinton’s shift on criminal justice reform since she lived in the White House.
“Hillary Clinton proposed various criminal justice reform ideas in an attempt to undo some of Bill Clinton’s work — the same work she cheerfully supported as first lady,” Mr. Paul said in a statement.
Mr. Obama reacted cautiously to the proposals from the former first lady, senator and top diplomat.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president believed the cameras “could be a useful tool” to protect police and public, but he cautioned that studies have been inconclusive.
“There’s not a strong body of evidence to this point about what impact body-worn cameras actually have,” he said. “The little evidence that does exist does indicate that they could positively contribute to relations between police officers and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.”
The Department of Justice this week will discuss a pilot grant program for body-worn cameras. Mr. Obama has requested $75 million over three years in his fiscal 2016 budget proposal for 50,000 body-worn cameras for local police departments.
The president’s task force on policing, created last year after some high-profile confrontations between minorities and police, also has called for more use of the cameras.
“The task force recommendations and some of the funds from the Department of Justice will go toward actually studying the impact of body-worn cameras and gathering more evidence to try to assess with more specificity what impact the use of body-worn cameras has on relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect,” Mr. Earnest said.
Mrs. Clinton said the case of Freddie Gray was only the latest example of a criminal justice system that was “out of balance.” The death of the 25-year-old black man injured in police custody set off riots in Baltimore this week.
“From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable,” she said.
She listed the series of deaths of black men at the hands of police that have grabbed headlines in recent years.
“Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina, unarmed, in debt, terrified of spending any more time in jail for child support payments he couldn’t afford. Tamir Rice shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, unarmed and just 12 year old. Eric Garner, choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of our city. And now Freddie Gray, his spine nearly severed while in police custody,” she said.
“Not only as a mother and a grandmother, but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families,” said Mrs. Clinton. “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”
The remark drew some of the loudest applause form the audience at the university’s David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum.
Mrs. Clinton also called for calm in Baltimore, where the unrest has mostly subsided after riots Monday and a 10 p.m. curfew imposed in the city.
“We should begin by heeding the pleas of Freddie Gray’s family for peace and unity, echoing the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others in the past years,” she said. “Those who are instigating further violence in Baltimore are disrespecting the Gray family and the entire community. They are compounding the tragedy of Freddie Gray’s death and setting back the cause of justice.”
Mrs. Clinton’s stance on social justice issues was welcomed by her party’s left wing.
“The sign of a good leader is their willingness to stand up and speak the truth. Hillary Clinton did that today and rightly pointed out that current sentencing laws disproportionately impact Americans of color,” said Rep. Karen Bass, a liberal California Democrat.
After decades of politicians vowing to get tougher on crime, Mr. 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 and Law Enforcement Act.
That law 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, Mrs. Clinton’s wide-ranging speech showed how strikingly the politics of law and justice have shifted in recent years. “It is stunning,” said Mr. 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.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.