Hillary Rodham Clinton, a 2016 Democratic presidential contender, asks the...

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a 2016 Democratic presidential contender, asks the audience to join her in praying for the people of Baltimore during a speech at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, Wednesday, April 29, 2015 in New York. Credit: AP / Mark Lennihan

Hillary Rodham Clinton Wednesday bemoaned the violent unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and made an emotion-laden appeal to face "hard truths" about racial disparities and "restore balance" to the U.S. criminal justice system.

"What we have seen in Baltimore should -- indeed, I think, does -- tear at our soul," Clinton said at Columbia University in her most substantive policy speech since declaring her candidacy on April 12 for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. "From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable."

The former secretary of state and U.S. senator denounced the rioting and looting in Baltimore, saying those responsible are "compounding the tragedy" of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury. She recalled the death of Eric Garner, saying he was "choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of our city." Garner, 43, died in July on Staten Island after an NYPD officer restrained him in an apparent chokehold.

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

The line drew applause from the audience attending the 18th annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia, named for New York's first black mayor.

Clinton said it was time to "end the era of mass incarceration," a stance that departed from the anti-crime policies two decades ago of her husband, President Bill Clinton, which contributed to a surge in prison populations.

"There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are far more likely to be stopped by the police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts," Clinton said in the 30-minute speech.

It's a major reason, she said, why millions of Americans live in poverty. Each "missing" black father, husband or brother behind bars means one fewer paycheck for a family, she said.

She said the country must pursue "alternative punishments" for low-level offenders and divert those struggling with mental health problems to treatment and away from prisons.

Later, Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson sought to temper the notion she was repudiating her husband's record, tweeting: "HRC policy on internet might also be different than WJC policy in 1994. Not b/c he was wrong but b/c times change."

Clinton, a centrist Democrat and presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, faces likely primary challenges on her left. But she earned praise Wednesday from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate, for a "progressive vision on criminal justice reforms."

Fordham University Associate Professor of political science Christina Greer said Clinton was almost obligated to discuss criminal justice, with Baltimore "literally burning" this week, but she said the candidate's "abstract conversation about inequality" was light on specific policy prescriptions.

Iona College political science Professor Jeanne Zaino said Clinton's remarks hinted at "substantive policy changes" and shows "the focus is on issues that are relevant to Americans and starts to distinguish her from her husband in the 1990s."

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