Hillary Clinton Vows to End Mass Incarceration in the Wake of Baltimore Protests

AP

In a spirited speech at Columbia University on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton expressed sympathy for the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore police and called for sweeping criminal justice reform that would "end the era of mass incarceration."

The presidential hopeful began her speech by lamenting the killing of young black men by police in recent years and declared that it was part of an "undeniable pattern."

"We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America," Clinton said.

She then listed a series of statistics illustrating the vast disparities that white America and black America face from the criminal justice system: 

Source: Mic/YouTube
Source: Mic/YouTube

In her list of facts, she emphasized how the pervasiveness of incarceration upends communities of color and contributes to the phenomenon of poor, fatherless families:   

Source: Mic/YouTube
Source: Mic/YouTube

Clinton, who as a young attorney advocated for poor families and prison inmates, argued that the discriminatory practices of law enforcement and courts has frayed trust between communities and police forces around the country, and caused the criminal justice system "to get out of balance." Restoring balance requires the state to reciprocate the respect it demands for itself, she said. 

Source: Mic/YouTube
Source: Mic/YouTube

The details: The most remarkable part of the speech was when Clinton proclaimed that "it's time to end the era of mass incarceration." "Mass incarceration" is a term bandied about among progressive criminal justice advocates and policy wonks, but the phrase is rarely, if ever, employed by powerful American politicians. 

Clinton went on to call for a number of reforms in the justice system. She called for federal money to back practices that boost relations between law enforcement and communities, and condemned the use of "weapons of war" that local police departments across the country have access to. 

Clinton also called for body cameras for every police department in the country in order to "help protect good people on both sides of the lens."

Another angle of her discussion of reform centered on the need to lessen harsh penalties for drug possession and other low-level offenses. Clinton said that the money spent incarcerating people who don't pose a serious threat to society would be better used on teachers and smart policing to help people before they enter the criminal justice system.

What it means: Clinton's speech was bold — moreso than many would expect from a politician known to play it safe. It's also notable in that it calls for an explicit reversal of trends in incarceration that her party and her husband played an essential role in setting.

"One can also contrast the speech with the rhetoric and policies of Bill Clinton in the 1990s — and generally supported by Hillary Clinton at the time — that prioritized law enforcement and corrections at the expense of prevention and treatment," Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, told Mic.  "We are also still living with the legacy of Clinton's 1994 federal crime bill, which provided $9 billion in prison construction, a federal 'three strikes and you're out' policy, and fiscal incentives for states to adopt 'truth in sentencing' provisions that lengthened prison terms."

Mauer said that Clinton's call for enhanced economic opportunity, expanded mental health treatment and diverse approaches to substance abuse bodes well for criminal justice reformers, but there must be an emphasis on the punishment part of the equation.

"We need to recall that mass incarceration was largely produced by changes in sentencing policy and will only be undone by reversing those policies," he told Mic. "Thus, we need to see a focus on challenging mandatory sentencing laws, 'three strikes' policies, and the dramatic growth in the use of life imprisonment."