Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE on Wednesday linked the justice system’s treatment of racial minorities to the broader debate about inequality, signaling a new possible focus for her unfolding presidential campaign. 

Speaking at Columbia University in New York, Clinton used her first major policy address as a presidential candidate to argue that there is something “profoundly wrong” with a system in which blacks are more likely than whites to be imprisoned or stopped by police.


She then called for Washington to 

reduce inequality, not only in the justice system but in the economic opportunities afforded to all people in the U.S.

“There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison in their adult lifetime,” she said.

Clinton’s speech was a direct appeal to black voters, an important part of President Obama’s winning coalition that the former secretary of State wants to keep firmly in the Democratic camp in 2016.

Though she condemned the violence in Baltimore set off by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, she said that the riots did not render the broader questions raised by the protesters unworthy of consideration, ticking off a list of recent police killings of black men that have led to demonstrations around the country.

“From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable,” she said.

Clinton’s speech signaled a new focus for the Democratic front-runner, who has come under some criticism from people who have argued that she has not provided a rationale for why she is running for president.

On Wednesday, she argued that poverty and income inequality are exacerbating problems in the U.S. justice system, and set herself apart as a politician who will look for the answers.

“Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty,” she said.

“I don’t want the discussion of criminal justice to be siloed,” she said. “The conversation needs to be much broader, because that is a symptom, not a cause, of what ails us today.”

It was a message that appeared to be intended not only for black voters but for Democrats who might be attracted to the economic populism defined by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and others in the party.

Clinton praised recent efforts aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, which critics say are partly to blame for the disproportionate incarceration rates of black men.

She said that the country should improve treatment for mental illnesses and drug addiction, and argued that having every police officer wear a body camera would significantly change the way police interact with the communities they serve.

“That will improve transparency and accountability,” she said. “It will protect good people on both sides of the lens.”

Clinton’s comments were also notable in highlighting the shift in political rhetoric around crime since 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton signed a bill that demanded states impose harsh sentences for crimes if they wanted to be eligible for certain federal grants.

Some have accused the former first lady of using “tough on crime” rhetoric when it was politically advantageous in the past, but she sought to shift away from her husband’s policies during her 2008 presidential campaign.

At a 2007 event in Iowa, she said that the policies put in place by her husband and others had led to “an unacceptable increase in incarceration across the board.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been supporting measures in recent years meant to make the justice system less punitive for nonviolent offenders and children. Their ranks include many of Clinton’s possible opponents, should she win the nomination, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Paul and Cruz were among the contributors to a volume of essays about reform published Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice. Writings from Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry also appear in the book.

Clinton praised Paul’s work with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on justice issues as evidence of a bipartisan consensus on reform. But shortly after she finished her speech, Paul painted Clinton as inconsistent on the issue.

“Earlier today, Hillary Clinton proposed various criminal justice reform ideas in an attempt to undo some of Bill Clinton’s work — the same work she cheerfully supported as first lady,” a press release from his campaign said.

“Not only is Hillary Clinton trying to undo some of the harm inflicted by the Clinton administration, she is now emulating proposals introduced by Senator Rand Paul over the last several years, and we welcome her to the fight.”

 — Last updated at 8:39 p.m.