Washington: As the people of Baltimore set about cleaning up stricken suburbs Hillary Clinton has given her first major policy speech since announcing her candidacy, calling for major criminal justice reform and an end to mass incarceration.

Echoing concerns that have been highlighted by President Barack Obama, Mrs Clinton lamented not only the roll call of unarmed black men who have been killed by police in high-profile cases across the country, but the inequities of the system.

The speech suggested that the harsh law and order practices championed and put into effect during her husband’s presidency have failed, and that African Americans suffered disproportionately under them.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York on Wednesday.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at the 18th Annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University in New York on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

“From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable,” she said during a keynote address at a Columbia University public policy forum on Wednesday morning

“Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina. Unarmed. In debt. And terrified of spending more time in jail for child support payments he couldn’t afford.

“Tamir Rice shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. Unarmed and just 12 years old.

Members of the audience applaud Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at Columbia university.

Members of the audience applaud Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at Columbia university. Photo: AP

“Eric Garner choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of this city.

“And now Freddie Gray. His spine nearly severed while in police custody.”

Mrs Clinton said the impact of heavy handed and unfair policing and sentencing practices hit all of society rather than those caught up in the police net.

A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew in Baltimore on Tuesday.

A protestor faces police enforcing a curfew in Baltimore on Tuesday. Photo: AP

“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.”

She highlighted a USA Today article that noted that there is just 10 kilometres between the Baltimore suburbs of Roland Park and Hollins Market, but those living in them have a difference in life expectancy of 20 years.

She said those committing violence in Baltimore were showing disrespect to the family of Freddie Gray and to the broader community.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear outside a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore on Tuesday.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear outside a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

But she said the bonds of trust and respect in American society needed to be rebuilt.

“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows,” she said.

She noted that taxpayers were spending US$80 billion a year ($100 billion) to keep so many people in jail, and that in many states it cost more to keep a single inmate incarcerated that it would to pay teacher or police officer.

“One year in a New Jersey state prison costs $44,000—more than the annual tuition at Princeton”, she said.

Mrs Clinton said she welcomed and supported President Obama’s moves to reduce harsh sentences and reduce the disparity of sentences for people caught with crack cocaine and powdered cocaine, but in some areas she went further.

She advocated an end to mandatory minimum sentences and called for more use of diversionary sentencing practices for low level, non-violent offenders. She backed Mr Obama’s offer to match local funding for police body cameras, but said she would go further, ensuring that all American police were equipped with them.

“This is a time for wisdom. A time for honesty about race and justice in America,” she said. “And, yes, a time for reform”.

Mrs Clinton’s reformist stance stand in contrast to the tough on crime mantra shared by both parties when her husband was in office and America’s middle-class was concerned with soaring crime rates.

As a presidential candidate in 1992 Bill Clinton, then the Governor of Arkansas, famously refused to sign an order of executive clemency for an inmate who had murdered a police officer and then shot himself in the head, massively damaging his brain.

Mr Clinton even interrupted his campaign to return to Arkansas for the execution.

“I think any intelligent politician has to make judgments on when he gets out in front of popular opinion and when you follow the community intent,” Roby Robertson, director of the Arkansas Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock told Associated Press at the time. “I think this is one where Bill Clinton feels the people of Arkansas support the death penalty and he’s not going to go against it.”

By contrast today crime rates are low and dropping, and concern about the fairness and expense of the criminal justice system is growing.