ATLANTA — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton rolled out new criminal justice proposals Friday in her first public campaign stop in Atlanta, entering a debate on crime and punishment that has galvanized her party’s base and gained support among some Republicans.
The former secretary of state seized on a national discussion about racial tensions and police practices sparked by a series of shooting deaths of unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers, calling for an end to racial profiling and seeking new sentencing guidelines for cocaine convictions.
The event on the campus of Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, was interrupted by protesters chanting “black lives matter.” Demonstrators have protested several 2016 presidential candidates, urging them to more forcefully address the racial tensions underlying the police shootings.
Clinton, who at times shouted over the protesters, urged them to listen to her speech because it addressed some of their demands. She continued with her speech as they were led out of the building to roars from the crowd of more than 1,000 students.
The appearance in Atlanta was part of Clinton’s effort to maximize her advantage with minority voters in the South as she looks to turn Georgia and other states voting in the “SEC primary” on March 1 into a firewall against her closest competitor, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Clinton’s proposals, which also include a measure to make it easier for convicted felons to get federal jobs, come amid a growing consensus calling for broader changes to the criminal justice system.
Republican candidates are showing signs of abandoning the “tough-on-crime” proposals of the 1990s that led to soaring incarceration rates but that critics say disproportionately punished minority offenders.
Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul have called for changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, saying that some long sentences haven’t helped deter or rehabilitate drug abusers, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants to give judges more leeway to release nonviolent offenders who are awaiting trial without bail.
The debate comes amid efforts in Georgia led by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to divert more nonviolent offenders from long prison sentences toward treatment programs. After five years of changes that have reduced incarceration rates and cut corrections costs, Georgia is seen as a national example of a conservative approach to criminal justice reform.
The shift marks a distinct change in national law enforcement policy. George H.W. Bush’s tough-on-crime stance helped him win the 1988 election, and Bill Clinton pushed anti-crime legislation that committed to putting 10,000 more officers on the streets and increased prison sentences.
More than 2.2 million Americans are now behind bars — a rate that’s nearly doubled since Bill Clinton took office — and he has since disavowed the tougher sentencing standards.
Hillary Clinton’s proposal would prohibit any law enforcement officer from relying on race when making routine stops or a “spontaneous investigative activity” unless there’s information linking the person to a crime.
She also said she wants to end disparities in sentencing between people caught with powder cocaine and those found with crack. President Barack Obama signed a law in 2010 that helped bring down a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity to 18-to-1, but those convicted of using crack still face far steeper penalties.
Clinton said she plans to make them even by increasing the threshold for crack offenses so it meets the powder cocaine guidelines because, she said, treating both forms of the drug differently hurts black Americans.
“We’re talking about two forms of the same drug,” she said. “It makes no sense to treat them differently.”
And she said she will sign an order to “ban the box,” a move preventing government agencies as well as contractors from asking about a job seeker’s criminal history at the initial application stage. Clinton said the measure, which Deal enacted in Georgia earlier this year, would give convicted criminals a better chance to compete for a job.
Clinton and most Republicans seem unwilling to go as far as a proposal outlined this week by Sanders, Clinton’s most serious Democratic challenger. He wants to allow states to decriminalize marijuana, giving states more leeway to regulate the drug.
“We must recognize that blacks are four times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana possession, even though the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana,” Sanders said Friday in a statement.
Republicans called Clinton, who backed tough-on-crime proposals while in the U.S. Senate, a hypocrite. Republican National Committee spokesman Orlando Watson said she lobbied for the “same policies she is now blaming for mass incarceration.”
“Hillary will say anything to get elected, which is why the majority of Americans continue to find her to be dishonest and untrustworthy,” he said.
Clinton urged the crowd to push both parties to unite behind the changes.
“We have to take on the continuing abuses where oppression is more prevalent than opportunity,” Clinton said. “We have to create those channels of opportunity so that we go from childhood to adulthood pursuing your dreams, instead of cradle to prison and seeing them die.”
Clinton also used her Atlanta stop to announce the start of an African Americans for Hillary group. It was an appeal to a group of voters who have been reluctant to side with Sanders, who despite rising to become Clinton’s main Democratic challenger, has been unable to expand beyond his largely white, liberal base centered in the Northeast.
But while Clinton reached out to African-Americans, not all showed they were willing to take her hand.
Before she could outline her proposal on racial profiling, about a dozen protesters clustered around the front of the stage and drew attention away from the candidate for about 10 minutes as they chanted “black lives matter.”
Influential black Atlanta leaders, including Mayor Kasim Reed and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, both strong Clinton supporters, attempted to talk to some of the protesters.
At a certain point, Clinton asked them to allow her to go on.
“I have some issues and proposals to discuss if my friends will let me speak,” she said.
Shortly after that, authorities led a leader of the protest out. The crowd then began its own chant of “let her speak, let her speak,” and it cheered as the rest of the protesters were pushed out of the room.