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Clinton eyes the end of 'the era of mass incarceration'

The criminal justice system was an afterthought in national politics. It's now a front-burner issue that's likely to play a major role in the 2016 campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at...
We've grown quite accustomed to thinking about Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, but the truth is she's only been an official candidate for about two weeks. In that time, the Democrat has begun to sketch out some policy goals and priorities, but the former Secretary of State hasn't spoken to the media much and she hadn't given any major speeches on any subject.
That changed today, when the Democratic frontrunner tackled one of the nation's most pressing challenges. Alex Seitz-Wald reported this morning on Clinton's remarks at a policy forum at Columbia University, where she "made it clear that criminal justice reform will be a priority of her campaign."

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 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.

Noting a familiar statistic -- the United States has nearly 25% of the world's prison population, but only 5% of the world's overall population -- Clinton said this morning, "It's time to change our approach. It's time to end the era of mass incarceration. We don't want to create another incarceration generation."
As for the presidential hopeful's proposed solution's, Clinton shared a few specific ideas. From the official transcript provided by the Clinton campaign:

"First, we need smart strategies to fight crime that help restore trust between law enforcement and our communities, especially communities of color... We can start by making sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets. "President Obama's task force on policing gives us a good place to start. Its recommendations offer a roadmap for reform, from training to technology, guided by more and better data. "We should make sure every police department in the country has 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. For every tragedy caught on tape, there surely have been many more that remained invisible. Not every problem can be or will be prevented with cameras, but this is a commonsense step we should take. "The President has provided the idea of matching funds to state and local governments investing in body cameras. We should go even further and make this the norm everywhere. "And we should listen to law enforcement leaders who are calling for a renewed focus on working with communities to prevent crime, rather than measuring success just by the number of arrests or convictions."

To be sure, a speech isn't a policy paper, and Clinton conceded that this is really just a preview of her more detailed proposals, which will be released as the campaign progresses. "I'll be talking about all of this in the months to come," she said in her remarks, "offering new solutions to protect and strengthen our families and communities."
But that doesn't mean today's event was unimportant. It's noteworthy, for example, that Clinton could have picked any topic for her first big speech as a candidate, and with violence in Baltimore on the minds of many, she focused her attention on the criminal justice system. What was once an afterthought in national politics is clearly becoming a front-burner issue that's likely to play a major role in the 2016 campaign.
As Jonathan Allen noted, it also matters that Clinton's progressive approach to the issue represents a sharp break from her husband's record on the same subject.

In 1994, Bill Clinton's crime bill prescribed putting 100,000 more police on American streets, authorized billions of dollars for prison construction, forced states to impose harsher sentences on violent offenders to be eligible for prison-construction grants, and deprived federal inmates of access to college courses. [...] Twenty years ago, harsh sentences were political gold for a Democratic president seeking to show his toughness in a re-election campaign. Now, Republican presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, are calling for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences. And Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, knows ending mass incarceration is high on the priority list for many in her own party and outside it.

The historical context certainly matters -- Clinton took office at a time when crime rates were much higher -- but regardless, it wasn't long ago that speeches like the one Clinton delivered today would have sparked a backlash from the right, filled with lazy cliches about "soft on crime."
The national conversation has moved in a more progressive direction, and knee-jerk rhetoric about crime is far less common.
One of the most famous phrases of Bill Clinton's presidency was, "The era of big government is over." Two decades later, if Hillary Clinton wants to be known for ending "the era of mass incarceration," it represents a huge step in the right direction.