Amid Baltimore Violence, Hillary Clinton Calls for End to 'Era of Mass Incarceration'

"We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance," she said.

April 29, 2015, 12:01 PM

— -- During her first major policy speech as a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton called for widespread reform of the criminal justice system in the United States, urging the “end of an era of mass incarceration” and for increasing the use of body cameras by law enforcement agents nationwide.

“There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” Clinton said during her roughly 30-minute speech at the 18th annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum.

“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,” Clinton continued. “There is something wrong when more than 1 out of every 3 black men in Baltimore cannot find a job. There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down as far as they have in many of our communities.”

The Democratic presidential candidate’s remarks, made at a policy forum at Columbia University in New York City this morning, were her most extensive to date on the issue of racially biased policing and criminal punishment, and come amid unrest and riots in Baltimore following Monday’s funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal injury apparently suffered in police custody.

The situation in Baltimore, like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, was sparked by concerns of police use of force and institutionalized racism.

“We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance,” she said. "These recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as nation to find our balance again.”

Clinton went on to propose a broader conversation designed to reduce the number of Americans behind bars and living in poverty -- through both reforms in criminal punishment and a renewed focus on mental health. Laying out specific policy measures, the Democratic presidential candidate called for the end of the “era of mass incarceration” and for the use body cameras at every police department nationwide.

Clinton called for smarter prison sentencing and for increased support for mental health and drug treatment.

“Please, please, put mental health back on the top of our national agenda,” she pleaded. "Our prisons and our jails are now our mental institutions.”

Although Clinton’s remarks were light on specifics for how to implement the new measures, Clinton’s policies appear to follow in the footsteps of the Obama administration, which has taken similar steps in the wake of recent events to reform the criminal justice system.

In 2010, President Obama signed the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

In December last year, he proposed $263 million request to help fund purchase of 50,000 police body cameras.

And most recently, in February, he met with law enforcement and signaled support for a GOP led bill on smarter prison sentencing.

Today, Clinton praised President Obama’s efforts as a “good place to start,” but said there is more work to do.

“Our goal must truly be inclusive and lasting prosperity that’s measured in how many families get ahead and stay ahead,” Clinton said. “How many children climb out of poverty and stay out of prison; how many young people can go to college without breaking the bank; how many new immigrants can start new businesses; how many parents can get good jobs that allow them to balance the demands of work and family. That’s how we should measure prosperity,” she said to applause.

“With all due respect,” she continued, “That is a far better measurement than the size of the bonuses in downtown office buildings.”

"Not only as a mother and as a grandmother, but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families. We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” Clinton said. “It’s time to change our approach.”

ABC News' Devin Dwyer and Mary Bruce contributed to this report.

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