New 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has officially responded to the Baltimore riots, and the death of African American Freddie Gray while in police custody in her first major policy speech as a candidate. Clinton delivered her remarks calling for criminal justice reform in a speech on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York. In her 30-minute major address, she agreed with President Barack Obama that body cameras on police officers were necessary; she went further calling for them to be mandatory and to look towards mental health initiatives as a way of dealing the cycle of crime and punishment in the African American community.
Although she commended the work of law enforcement officers, Clinton in her “impassioned speech” called for end of criminal justice system’s focus on black on men, “patterns” which she called the “unmistakeable and undeniable.” Clinton expressed, “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 extensively spoke out against “racially-biased policing and criminal punishment” and the use of police’s use of “force and institutionalized racism” to deal with suspected crimes within densely African American communities in the country.
Clinton’s remarks come after the latest episode of terrible riots and unrest in the US after a series of police shootings killing African American suspects in the past year. Among them the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio where the police officers involved were not charged for the deaths they caused, only in the shooting of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, were the police officers charged for their acts.
The most recent round of riots center in Baltimore, Maryland after a black suspect Freddie Gray, 25, died from a severed spin at the neck and other related injuries when he was forcibly and violently taken into custody by police for running away and possessing a switch-blade. Gray had a long criminal record, with 20 charges in five active ones at the time of his death. The officers were not charged in Gray’s death only suspended without pay. Clinton remarked, “Yet again, the streets of an American city are marred by violence, by shattered glass. What we have seen in Baltimore should indeed, I think indeed does, tear at our soul.”
There have been an increase in police caused deaths in the US in recent years, in 2012 there 611 deaths, 2013 there 342, last year 2014 saw the most in recent in years there was 628. There have already been 157 deaths in the first few months on 2015 alone, almost the same amount for the entire 2011 where there was 166. In 2009, there were as few as only 63 deaths caused by law enforcement. Clinton commented about the recent string of deaths, “We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance. These recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as nation to find our balance again.”
The riots in Baltimore started on Saturday April 25, and escalated after Gray’s funeral on April 27, where there mass riots, looting fires and violence towards police. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, April 28, the National Guard brought in and a curfew instituted, which has since curbed the riots. The riots in this past year are the worst race riots since 1968, after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination on April 4.
Clinton pointed the problems with the statistics where African American men are facing the brunt and heaviest load of the criminal justice system, with the odds stacked against them, “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. There is something wrong when more than 1 out of every 3 million 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 hopeful, former First Lady, New York Senator, 2008 Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State used the second part of her speech proposing reforms that would help alleviate the problems African Americans are facing, particularly poverty and involvement in crime. Clinton wants “reforms in criminal punishment” and is looking that more emphasis mental health and drug abuse treatment in order to end the “era of mass incarceration.” Clinton pleaded that mental health has to be at the forefront, saying, “The promise of deinstitutionalizing those in mental health facilities was supposed to be followed by the creation of community-based treatment centers…. Please, please, put mental health back on the top of our national agenda. Our prisons and our jails are now our mental institutions.”
Clinton also expanded on the president’s idea body cameras should be mandatory for all police officers, citing “That will improve transparency and accountability and it will help protect good people on both sides of the lens. For every tragedy caught on tape there are surely many more.” Clinton called it a “common-sense step,” that should be “the norm everywhere.” With all her solutions, Clinton admitted, “I don’t know the answers” when it come to protecting communities and at the same time, putting less people in jail, but she will working on a solution to this and “the broader inequalities in our society.”
In December 2014, President Obama requested from Congress $263 million to purchase 50,000 cameras, but still not enough for all the law enforcement in the country. Obama has also modified some of the laws for drug offenses with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which differentiated sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The president also recently commuted sentences for a number of drug offenders.
Clinton took a “populist tone” in her speech and believes Obama’s actions are a start, but more needs to be done; “Our goal must truly be inclusive and lasting prosperity that’s measured in how many families get ahead and stay ahead. How many children climb out of poverty and stay out of prison; how many young people can go to college without raking 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. With all due respect that is a far better measurement than the size of the bonuses in downtown office buildings.”
Clinton expressed that the views, the “hard truths” towards race need to be changed and the problems with race relations need to be recognized; “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. It’s time to change our approach.” She concluded by asking the country to “please join [her] in saying a prayer for the family of Freddie Gray, and all the men whose names we know and those we don’t who have lost their lives unnecessarily and tragically. And in particular today, include in that prayer the people of Baltimore and our beloved country.”
Transcript of Hillary Clinton’s speech on criminal justice reform at Columbia University, April 29, 2015
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.