Photo of Michael Bloomberg

Remarks on Criminal Justice Reform in Jackson, Mississippi

December 03, 2019

Jennifer, thank you. Mr. Mayor, thank you for having us in Jackson.

It's great to be here. This is my second time in a year, so the next time is going to be in a couple months maybe?

Seriously, this city and state haven't got as much attention from other presidential candidates. And that's unfortunate because places like Jackson have different challenges, different opportunities – and different perspectives – than other parts of the country. But the challenges facing the people of this city are the challenges that our party has to confront head-on, and that's why I'm here today.

A small group of us just had the opportunity to talk about a topic that is critically important – both the Mayor and Jennifer mentioned it – a criminal justice system, one that has to be fair to all Americans. And I want to thank them all for their thoughtful dialogue. I learnt a lot, which I will take back to New York.

Let me also thank the Mayor for bringing us all together – and his strong leadership on this issue.

I think it's only right that we're talking about it here in Jackson, where African-Americans were once put behind bars for doing nothing more than peacefully protesting for equal rights, and where an all-white jury let Medgar Evers' killer walk away free – not once, but twice.

Now, we've come a long way since then – but we are still too far from guaranteeing all Americans equal rights under the law. There are more than two million people behind bars in the U.S. – far more than any other developed country. And more than half of them are African-American or Latino.

As many studies have shown, the scales of justice are tipped against African-Americans, Latinos, and low-income individuals. That is disgraceful – and we just can't tolerate it anymore. As President, I will work to fix it once and for all, and I know that we can do it, because in New York City, we showed how much progress is possible.

Keeping people out of the criminal justice system was a top priority for me as mayor for 12 years. Even as the number of people incarcerated went up in the rest of the country, we were able at the same time to reduce the number of people behind bars by 39 percent. Thirty-nine percent. If the rest of the country had achieved that kind of reduction, there would have been about 900,000 fewer people behind bars today nationwide.

And, we accomplished that reduction while also cutting murders in half, and making New York the safest big city in the nation.

Now, when I first took office, a lot of people thought that the best way to reduce crime was to lock up more people. We refused to accept that.

Instead, we took a different approach – a much more comprehensive approach that focused on preventing crime and reducing recidivism.

We started with education. We doubled the educational budget and created hundreds of new schools to replace the failing schools that were concentrated in black and Latino neighborhoods.

We also invested in economic opportunity and job training in those neighborhoods, which had historically suffered from low-levels of investment.

We expanded alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts that focused on treatment and rehabilitation.

We banned the box, as it's called, for government hiring – barring agencies from asking about a criminal record during their initial application for a job. And we worked closely with civil rights leaders to overhaul the juvenile criminal justice system.

We focused on keeping young people who got in trouble close to home, and worked to change the nature of their relationships with probation officers to one of trust and support, rather than just compliance.

These juvenile justice changes allowed us to achieve three major victories.

One, we convinced the state to close down detention centers in rural areas that did more to ruin lives than reform them.

Two, we cut the number of juveniles confined in facilities by 63 percent – a drop that was about one-third larger than the rest of the country, and saved an enormous amount of money.

And three, by investing in programs to help young people get their lives back on track, violent felony recidivism dropped by 29 percent, and we were able to use some of that money we saved by incarcerating fewer people on rehabilitation.

We also created a program called the Young Men's Initiative – to help at-risk black and Latino youth overcome the long odds that they face.

It was the first program of its kind in the nation, and I'm glad to say that President Obama built on our success by creating a similar program, called My Brother's Keeper. Today, My Brother's Keeper is active in more than 250 cities across America.

At the same time, we worked to prevent shootings through community-led interventions that resolve conflicts before they become violent.

Now, we weren't perfect – and I've spoken recently about some of the mistakes we made when it came to policing. Part of being a leader is admitting when you've made mistakes – and learning from them.

On the practice of stop and frisk, I certainly got it wrong and I regret that, and I'm sorry.

But also, I want Americans to know what's in my heart. I care deeply about fighting discrimination in all of its forms. And the truth is a big reason why I first ran for mayor was to right historic wrongs on race – including on education, economic opportunity, and public health.

Tackling criminal justice reform was a big part of that work, and we were able to demonstrate that it's possible to adopt smart and progressive criminal justice policies while also driving down crime. And as President, that is exactly what I will do nationwide.

Today I'm announcing three criminal justice reforms that will build on what we did in New York City, by empowering cities and states to enact similar policies across this country so we can end the era of mass incarceration in the United States.

First, we're going to launch a nationwide initiative to cut the overall imprisonment of young people in half by the end of my first term. We know we can do it. Why? Because we already did it in New York City. And we can just take that and do it right across this country. We're not promising something that we don't know how to do – we've shown we know how to do it.

We're also going to eliminate juvenile incarceration for all non-violent offenders throughout the United States. There are currently about 53,000 young people being held in detention centers, jails, or prisons. About one-third of them are being held for low-level, non-violent crimes, and many of them are being held before even being convicted. Imagine the hopelessness that they must feel.

As President, I will make sure each of those children is returned to their families – and that will save us money that we can direct to services to help them get their lives back on track and restore hope for their future.

The second major change we're going to make is to reduce the number of adults in prison by investing in the same kinds of policies that proved so effective in New York City. Again, we know we can do it because we already did it. We cut incarceration in New York by 39 percent – and I know we can make the same progress nationwide.

It starts with improving schools, expanding job training, and investing in economic growth in communities that have suffered generations of neglect. It also means creating more alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment and creating programs that reduce recidivism, provide mental health services, and help people re-enter society and find employment.

It also means reforming our broken and discriminatory bail system. No person should ever sit behind bars because their skin is dark or their pockets are empty.

Third and finally, we'll invest in proven, community-based violence-interruption strategies to stop gun violence in the neighborhoods where it's worst.

The best and easiest way to keep people out of jail is to prevent a crime from being committed in the first place – and as President, I'll invest in local programs that do exactly that, just as we did in New York City.

Let me just make one final point that gets to the very core of my candidacy and why I'm running. The easiest thing to do in politics is to make empty promises. And that's followed closely by the second easiest thing to do in politics: divide people for personal gain. We've seen a lot of both of those things from our current President.

I will do the opposite. I will lead teams of people with diverse opinions and perspectives to take on tough challenges and rebuild this country. You see here today the types of leaders I will bring into my administration and work with them instead of against them.

Cities like Jackson have been ignored by their state and federal governments for too long.

I commit to always listening to people like Mayor Lumumba, because no one understands the needs of their city better than local leaders like him.

Unfortunately, today we have a President who is surrounded by sycophants who only tell him what he wants to hear – and that he's always right. And when they don't agree with him, he fires them.

That's not leadership – it's incompetence. And it's not how you get things done.

I know from my times in both government and business that you get things done by bringing people together with different opinions who challenge your assumptions and make you consider other perspectives.

So unlike our President, I know how to make government work, and I know from experience how to drive change.

I'm a problem solver, and it's time to tackle our problems and build an economy and a society that works for everyone.

Michael Bloomberg, Remarks on Criminal Justice Reform in Jackson, Mississippi Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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