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Hillary Clinton takes on 'hard truths about race and justice'

The likely presidential candidate calls for reducing the prison population and grappling with racial discrimination in criminal justice.
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, in Washington, on Dec. 3, 2014.

In her strongest comments yet this year on criminal justice, Hillary Clinton called for grappling with “hard truths” about racial discrimination in the justice system, and said “weapons of war” have no place on the streets of American communities.

Before beginning her speech at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston Thursday afternoon, the likely presidential candidate said she wanted to address “the pain and frustrations that many Americans are feeling" following grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York City.

Clinton spoke for more than five minutes on the subject, saying she’s “very pleased” that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating those cases, while calling for dramatic reform overall.

Related: Garner decision pushes many closer to breaking point

“Each of us has to grapple with some hard truths about race and justice in America. Because despite all the progress we’ve made together, African-Americans, and most particularly, African-American men, are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charge with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms,” she said.

Beyond racial issues, Clinton suggested she favors reducing the prison population overall.

“The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25% of the world’s total prison population,” she said, saying it's not because Americans break more laws than other nations. “It is because we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance. And I personally hope that these tragedies give us the opportunity to come together as a nation to find our balance again.”

"Each of us has to grapple with some hard truths about race and justice in America."'

She praised “creative and effective police departments” that fight crime ”without relying on excessive force  and unnecessary incarceration,” and called for using those departments as a model.

“Let’s make sure that federal funds to state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets or contribute to unnecessary force or arrests,” Clinton continued.

In addition to policy reforms, she called for a change in attitude. “These tragedies did not happen in some far away place. They didn’t happen to some other people. These are our streets, our children, our fellow Americans, and our grief,” she said, stressing that Americans need to see things through each others’ eyes.

The failure of the grand juries to indict officers in Ferguson and Staten Island have sparked massive protests across the country. And police crackdowns on protesters in Ferguson sparked a related national conversation about the militarization of police.

Clinton had been criticized for waiting almost 20 days to comment on Ferguson after Brown was killed in August. She finally did address the tragedy at a conference in San Francisco, discussing similar themes as her remarks in Boston. But her comments Thursday went even farther, and are as strong as any from politicians with national ambitions.

During her speech to the conference, which was attended by some 10,000 women, Clinton also spoke candidly about what life is like for presidents, having spent eight years married to one and now considering trying out for the job herself. Any president, she said, has to work hard, both to deal with the pressure and stay grounded in a job that is "unforgiving."

"Because you could easily lose touch with what’s real, what’s authentic, who you were before you were sworn into office," she said. "Every single president, that is one of the biggest challenges."

Clinton spoke favorably of an era when presidents could take lengthy periods of time outside of the bubble to "breathe" and "think" at a country home or even the presidential yacht, which no longer exists, but said it's getting increasingly difficult to do that.

"Here’s what I worry about now: I worry abut the stress of anybody in a leadership position, but multiplied many times over to be president. The incoming never ends. Technology connects you around the world instantaneously. You’re constantly being asked for opinions, to make decisions, that maybe you need more time," she continued. All of this is why it's so important, she said, to have a support network of family and friends who will "continue to treat you like a human being."

In case there was any doubt, Clinton assured the audience, "I have no shortage of such people in my own life."