In a Break from Scandal, Clinton Talks Criminal Justice Reform
Policy + Politics

In a Break from Scandal, Clinton Talks Criminal Justice Reform

With Hillary headlines dominated by more details about the large number of unnamed foreign donors to her family’s foundation, Clinton on Wednesday tried to move the conversation toward policy issues, delivering a passionate speech on criminal justice reform.

Speaking at Columbia University in New York, Clinton mingled concrete policy proposals with expressions of anger and sadness about both the killing of young black men by police officers and about the rioting that engulfed the city of Baltimore after the latest such incident, the death of Freddie Gray, whose spine was somehow severed while he was handcuffed and in police custody.

Related: How the Clinton Scandals Can Bring Down the Democrats

“Yet again, the family of a young black man is grieving a life cut short,” she said. “Yet again, the streets of an American city are marred by violence. By shattered glass and shouts of anger and shows of force. Yet again a community is reeling, its fault lines laid bare and its bonds of trust and respect frayed. Yet again, brave police officers have been attacked in the line of duty. What we've seen in Baltimore should, indeed does, tear at our soul.”

After reading off the names of a number of black men and boys killed by police, she said, “Not only as a mother and a grandmother but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families.”

Clinton went on to offer a list of policy proposals, including the demilitarization of state and local police forces, a requirement that police officers on patrol be equipped with body cameras and an overhaul of a corrections system that, she said, destabilizes communities such as Freddie Gray’s by taking young men accused of relatively minor offenses and locking them in prison for unnecessarily long terms.

It was, in many ways, Clinton at her best: addressing a problem currently in the intense glare of public attention with detailed policy solutions. Though the topic was somber, it was surely a relief of sorts for Clinton -- a chance to turn back to policy questions after a week in which the major news related to her has been about the finances of the Clinton Foundation, created by her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton

Related: How Hillary’s Email Mess Revived Benghazi

The foundation is the subject of a forthcoming book, Clinton Cash, by conservative writer Peter Schweizer. The book alleges that during her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton took actions that benefited people and organizations that had either made substantial donations to the Clinton Foundation or had hired her husband to deliver speeches. (The former president’s speaking fees soared while his wife ran the State Department, sometimes reaching $500,000.)

The Clintons have denied any wrongdoing, and Schweizer has said that he has no proof that Clinton, during her time at State, ever offered a quid pro quo to anyone associated with the foundation or with her husband’s speaking engagements. However, Schweizer and reporters following the story have determined that the foundation, which claimed to be highly transparent about its funding sources, actually did not report all of its benefactors.

Last week the foundation announced that it would have to refile tax returns for several years, and over the weekend, its acting CEO released an apology, admitting that the organization had “made mistakes.” However, it pushed back against a claim that a Canadian affiliate of the foundation, the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, had withheld the names of donors, claiming that Canadian law forbade such disclosure.

An article published by Bloomberg on Wednesday morning called that claim into question and revealed that as many as 1,100 donors, whose money eventually went to the Clinton Foundation, had made their donations through CGEP.

Related: What Elizabeth Warren Has that Hillary Clinton Needs

None of that, however, was addressed at Columbia, as Clinton called for bipartisan efforts to change the relationship between U.S. citizens – particularly African Americans – and the criminal justice system.

Clinton endorsed the interim report of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, delivered last month, which among other things urged police forces to avoid the use of military equipment and tactics except in extreme situations, called for the collection of more data about police interactions with citizens and recommended independent investigations of incidents in which officers injure or kill people.

Clinton said the report offers “a roadmap for reform, from training to technology, guided by more and better data,” which she used as a jumping off point for a call to equip all police officers with body cameras.

“We should make sure every police department in the country has body cameras to record interactions between officers on patrol and suspects,” she said. “That will improve transparency and accountability, it will help protect good people on both sides of the lens.”

Related: Clinton Foundation Admits Making Mistake on Taxes

Referring to several recent events in which excessive force used by the police has been caught on camera by bystanders, Clinton said: “For every tragedy caught on tape, there surely have been many more that remained invisible.”

Clinton called for an overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines as well as the corrections system, saying, “We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance.”

To considerable applause, she said, “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far 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.

“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 one out of every three young black men in Baltimore can't find a job. There is something wrong when trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve breaks down as far as it has in many of our communities.”

Clinton called for the support of a nascent bipartisan effort between Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who is running for his party’s presidential nomination, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to change rules that impose harsh sentences for minor drug crimes, often dooming people to a lifetime of diminished opportunities.

As passionate as Clinton was, there was an element of irony to her remarks since many of the elements of the system that she wants to change were put in place more than 20 years ago by the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, which was singed into law by her husband.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times