In a powerful speech Wednesday on the "hard truths about race and justice,” Hillary Clinton called for ending the “era of mass incarceration” and getting every police officer to wear body cameras.
The comments, at public policy forum named for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins at Columbia University, amounted to the first policy rollout of Clinton’s nascent second presidential campaign.
While Clinton has spoken out about criminal justice in recent months, and this week wrote an essay calling for reform, her Wednesday speech suggested criminal justice reform will be a priority of her campaign. It’s a dramatic break from the legacy of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who adopted a tough-on-crime mentality. And it's an embrace of a new bipartisan movement for reform, which also has strong support among liberal Democrats
Clinton began by addressing the violence in the streets of Baltimore this week following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died from injuries sustained while in police custody. The "violence has to stop,” she said, but Clinton also acknowledged that it came in response to legitimate grievances.
Ticking off the the names of African Americans who have been killed by police in the past year, Clinton said the “patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable.”
And citing statistics illuminating the disproportionate policing burden borne by black men, she said something is “profoundly wrong” with our criminal justice system. "Everyone in every community benefits when there is respect for the law and when everyone in every community is respected by the law," she continued.
The former secretary of state added that there are far too many Americans of all races behind bars today, noting that while the country has just 5% of the world’s population, it has almost 25% of the plant’s prison population.
"It's time to change our approach. It's time to end the era of mass incarceration,” she said. "We don't want to create another incarceration generation.”
Specifically, she noted that large portion of inmates are low-level and non-violent offenders. "Keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime but it does a lot to tear apart families and communities,” she said.
Among other solutions, Clinton proposed making body cameras available to all police officers. That’s a someting embraced by President Obama since the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri last summer. She said Obama’s policy on policing was a “good place to start,” suggesting she might go even further.
"That will improve transparency and accountability, it will help good people on both sides of the lens," Clinton explained.
Clinton also called for using federal grants to local police departments to incentive better police practices, while saying crime is embedded in larger problems of poverty and mental health. "We must urgently begin to rebuild the bonds of trust and respect among Americans. Between police and citizens, yes, but also across society,” she said.
Politically, the emphasis on criminal justice reform could be a smart move. The issue could help Clinton appeal to liberals and minority Democratic constituencies, both of whom she will need to turn out for her if she makes it to the 2016 general election.
It’s also an issue with growing bipartisan support, giving her political cover. Clinton even favorably mentioned the name of Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a likely presidential candidate, who has become one of her harshest critics.
Clinton's reformist approach -- previewed in several speeches over the past year -- stands in stark contrast to the record of her husband.
Running for president near the height of the crack of epidemic in 1992 and facing pressure from Republicans, Bill Clinton adopted a harsh law-and-order approach. He signed laws and took administrative action that dramatically increased the number of people behind bars, under the theory that getting criminals off the streets was the best approach to solving crime.
But the past two decades have led many former hardliners to recant as it has become clear that the old approach is not working. That includes Bill Clinton, who expressed some regret for his approach in the foreword to a new book from the reformist Brennan Center for Justice.
"The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement," Clinton wrote in the book, published this week. "But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long -- we have overshot the mark.”
Clinton continued that some of the policies implemented under his watch were "overly broad” and should be retooled to be more specific. The former president continued: "Some are in prison who shouldn't be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.”
It’s a message approaching the one offered by his wife Wednesday.
But for his part, Sen. Paul was not willing to let Hillary Clinton off Bill’s hook. His presidential campaign immediately sent out a press release suggesting Clinton was trying to "undo some of Bill Clinton's work-- the same work she cheerfully 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 spokesperson Sergio Gor.
Hillary Clinton wrote her own chapter in the Brennan Center’s book. Titled "Respect by the Law, Respect for the Law,” the chapter laid out many of the policy goals she discussed Wednesday and placed reform in the history of Democratic Party values. “Measures that I and others have championed to reform arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences, curb racial profiling, and restore voting rights for ex-offenders are long overdue,” she wrote.
Many details remain to be seen on Clinton’s reform proposals, especially on the body camera proposal. Those will come later.