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Bloomberg proposes broad changes to criminal justice system amid scrutiny of his past comments on race and policing

Posted February 18, 2020 10:04 a.m. EST

— Michael Bloomberg unveiled a suite of proposals on Tuesday aimed at addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system, reducing the prison population and investing in reintegration initiatives.

The policy rollout, which comes as the former New York mayor faces intense and renewed criticism for his past comments defending the implementation of "stop and frisk," aims to cut the prison population in half by 2030, soften some federal drug and sentencing laws and fund community engagement and rehabilitation programs.

The policy plan puts Bloomberg in line with his Democratic primary rivals, most of whom released their plans months ago and included many of the same proposals. But its release, just one day before Bloomberg is set to take the debate stage for the first time in Nevada, comes as he is on the defense over his past comments on race and policing.

For the second time in the last year, Bloomberg apologized in a speech in Houston last week for his years of implementing defending "stop and frisk." This latest apology came in the wake of the release of an audio recording from 2015, in which Bloomberg explicitly linked the targeting of minority youths with the controversial policing tactic that allowed officers to detain a person on any type of vague suspicion, search that individual without a warrant and arrest the person if any kind of illegal substance or weapon was found. The tactic drew widespread condemnation from minority communities in New York as discriminatory and ultimately ineffective.

Bloomberg does not explicitly mention stop and frisk in his plan released Tuesday, but he does propose several new policies that effectively serve as a repudiation of the practice that exploded in use by law enforcement in New York during his tenure.

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His proposals call for raising the use of force standard for police, mandating implicit bias and de-escalation training, decriminalizing marijuana use and possession, and the commutation of all sentences for those offenses. The proposal also calls for the renewal of programs aimed at preventing over-policing, and Bloomberg promises to encourage new civil rights investigations focused on addressing police forces with a history of abuse and focused on "our most racially segregated communities."

In a statement, Bloomberg called the criminal justice system "broken and unjust."

"As president I'll end the era of mass incarceration, ensure fairness and equality in our criminal justice system, and shift its focus from punishment to rehabilitation," he added.

The proposals reflect a dramatic change in emphasis that has played out in the Democratic primary race, where virtually every candidate vying for the party's nomination has proposed to use the levers of the federal government to rein in the use of police force, reduce the prison population and address the country's vast penal system.

That shift in emphasis is particularly stark for Bloomberg, who until recently championed the tough-on-crime results he claimed stop and frisk produced for New York. After years of a being a staunch defender of stop and frisk, Bloomberg now argues he has had a change of heart, or, at least, a change of understanding of the impact the policy had on black and Hispanic youths who were disproportionately affected by the tactics.

With his criminal justice plan, he pledges to devote some $20 billion to efforts to change the system over 10 years and to use the federal dollars as an incentive to push states and localities to cut back on imprisonment, reform their police forces, and fund community engagement programs.

Bloomberg launched a late, unconventional campaign for the Democratic nomination -- pumping more than $400 million into television ads blanketing the country and a behemoth of a campaign operation with more than 2,400 staff in 43 states.

He will not appear on the ballot in the traditional first four primary and caucus states, but as the nominating contest turns to more diverse states where black and Hispanic voters will have a greater say, Bloomberg's past comments on race have now resurfaced, prompting intense scrutiny and criticism from advocates and his fellow candidates who are eager to force a public vetting of his record on these issues.

In the 2015 recording on "stop and frisk," Bloomberg argues that "95%" of "murders and murderers and murder victims" are male minorities between the ages of 16 to 25.

"So, one of the unintended consequences is people say, 'Oh my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities.' Yes, that is true. Why? Because we put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods. Yes, that is true. Why did we do it? Because that's where all the crime is," Bloomberg says. "And the way you get the guns out of the kid's hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them."

After the audio surfaced, Bloomberg offered an apology for not acting sooner to end stop and frisk but did not apologize for the words he used in the clip to defend it.

"There is one aspect of approach that I deeply regret, the abuse of police practice called stop and frisk," Bloomberg said. "I defended it, looking back, for too long because I didn't understand then the unintended pain it was causing to young black and brown families and their kids. I should have acted sooner and faster to stop it. I didn't, and for that I apologize."

In another recently resurfaced video, Bloomberg defends the discriminatory practice of redlining, in which banks refused to offer loans in poor and minority neighborhoods and blamed the end of that practice for the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Both issues loom over Bloomberg's participation in the next Democratic primary debate in Nevada on Wednesday.

The criminal justice plan released by Bloomberg's campaign leans heavily on his tenure as mayor to bolster the efficacy of the programs he proposes at a federal level. The campaign cites a 50% drop in murders in New York City during Bloomberg's tenure, a fall in police shootings, and a drop in incarceration rates in the city.

There is, however, no mention of the aspects of his tenure that have prompted attacks from his rivals, most notably, court decisions criticizing the city for violating the constitutional rights of residents with stop and frisk or Bloomberg's efforts to block greater oversight of the police department's tactics.

The proposal also leans on programs pioneered by President Barack Obama, whose praise of Bloomberg is featured prominently in a campaign ad.

Bloomberg also proposes reviving Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative with $100 million in funding annually to encourage investments of young men of color and discouraging their entry into the criminal justice system. And he links that program to the Young Men's Initiative, a NYC based-project with similar goals that operated during his tenure as mayor and is also the subject of one of his campaign ads.

Bloomberg would also revive another Obama-era program: The clemency initiative, which resulted in the early release of more than 1,000 drug offenders who were imprisoned during the 1980s and 1990s during the "war on drugs."

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