Is Hillary Clinton backing off her husband's legacy on crime?

In a speech Wednesday, Hillary Clinton emphasized that events in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore show that the US has allowed its justice system ‘to get out of balance.’

Mark Lennihan/AP
Hillary Rodham Clinton, a 2016 Democratic presidential contender, speaks at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, April 29, in New York.

Hillary Clinton’s call Wednesday for an end to “the era of mass incarceration” in the wake of riots in Baltimore not only amounts to a critique of her own past views on fighting crime, but is also suggestive of a broader cultural and political evolution in America’s attitudes toward aggressive policing and prison building – efforts to deal with urban crime and blight.

Mrs. Clinton’s speech, at Columbia University in New York, represented the first major policy address of her nascent presidential campaign, and it set down a marker for what is emerging as an indelible issue for presidential candidates from both parties.

In an at-times impassioned speech, Clinton’s key point was that events in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore show that the United States has allowed its justice system “to get out of balance” – with policies enacted decades ago now having negative consequences. Recent tragedies involving police and young black men, she added, “should galvanize us ... to find our balance again.”

“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” she said.

The words represent a viewpoint shift for Clinton, at least considering the stance the White House took when her husband, Bill Clinton, was president. In 1994, Mr. Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which outlined tougher sentences for drug offenders and included funding to build new prisons.

Now, critics will look askance at what may seem a convenient shift for Mrs. Clinton at a time when racial grievances have exploded into protests in the US.

Yet Clinton’s apparent evolution also seems to suggest a building bipartisan momentum in the US public toward reassessing whether the policies created to deal with high violent crime rates in the cities are appropriate in an era where those rates have sunk to historic lows.

“The fact is, the American public is complicit in the ways in which our police act in the inner city,” says Robert Kane, author of the upcoming book “No Justice, No Peace: Smart Crowds, ‘Dumb’ Policing and #FergusonRebellion.” “But I think that since Ferguson, it’s clear that [events throughout the country] have brought issues of police [and justice system] accountability into the public discourse, and one reason is these events where police can be seen treading on the dignity of people they’re supposed to be serving,” said Mr. Kane, who is head of the Criminology and Justice Studies Program at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Many of the get-tough policies, including the 1994 crime bill, were aimed at quelling the most glaring violence in society – black-on-black crime, including killings, in the nation’s toughest neighborhoods. But as the violent crime rate has been halved since 1992, aggressive police tactics such as broken windows and zero tolerance have gone from solution to problem, critics say, creating urban zones where people can hardly walk, bike, or drive without being suspected of wrongdoing.

According to Clinton, the effects of such aggressive policing, as well as mass incarceration for nonviolent offenders, continue to devastate black neighborhoods. She referenced a recent New York Times data analysis that found that for every 100 black women, there are only 83 black men who aren’t in jail or who haven't faced early death, meaning that 17 black men are, in essence, “missing.” In contrast, only one white man is missing for every 100 white women due to incarceration or early death.

“Keeping [low-level offenders] behind bars does little to reduce crime, but it does a lot to tear apart families and communities,” Clinton said. “When we talk about 1-1/2 million African-American men, we’re talking about missing husbands, missing fathers, missing brothers: They’re not there to bring home a paycheck, and the consequences are profound.”

On Wednesday, Clinton also called for all police departments in the US to use body cameras.

Republican candidates for president have not had as much to say about the conflagrations in Baltimore, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has in the past criticized policing policies that disproportionately affect black neighborhoods, noting awkwardly that he was glad the train he was on, which pulled through Baltimore, “didn’t stop” Monday.

Yet in a notable momentum shift, calls for justice system reform are coming as much from conservatives as liberals. Conservative states like South Carolina, Texas, and South Dakota have all recently passed criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing prison populations and making it easier for ex-convicts to reenter society.

According to a Texas Public Policy Foundation poll in March, 73 percent of Lone Star residents want to see low-level drug offenders sent to treatment instead of jail, and 61 percent want the state to spend more on treatment than the building of new prisons.

“I think there used to be a view that for a legislator to vote to reduce penalties, for example, that would mean they’d be accused of being soft on crime and they’d lose an election,” says Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice in Austin, Texas. “But after a lot of these votes in the states, legislators are getting positive feedback, and some are even campaigning on criminal justice reform.”

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