Could a Bloomberg Presidency Really Reduce the Nation's Prison Population by 900,000 People?

On Tuesday, business mogul, former New York City mayor and Democratic presidential contender Michael Bloomberg visited Jackson, Mississippi, to speak on criminal justice reform.

"Keeping people out of the criminal justice system was a top priority for me as mayor for 12 years," Bloomberg said. "Even as the number of people incarcerated went up in the rest of the country, we [in New York City] were able at the same time to reduce the number of people behind bars by 39 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."

Such a large figure may seem outlandish, especially for a candidate who has already had to apologize for one of his previous approaches to criminal justice—Before and during Bloomberg's administration, New York City policy carried out hundreds of thousands of "Stop and Frisk" searches, wherein officers could halt and pat down civilians based on little evidence. The policy was disproportionately enforced in communities of color and was the subject of lawsuits brought by multiple advocacy organizations against the city.

Nevertheless, the math in Bloomberg's statement was correct. According to data released in March from the Prison Policy Initiative, approximately 2.3 million people are in some manner of confinement in the United States—including prisons and jails—and 39 percent of that number is about 900,000.

Data from the New York City Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice comparing the number of inmates in New York City jails and prisons per 100,000 residents with the rest of the country showed that the number of people imprisoned in New York City steadily dropped during Bloomberg's time as mayor. However, the trend actually began years before he took office. Between 1999 and 2000, the number of incarcerated people in New York fell from 853 per 100,000 residents to 750 per 100,000—a 12 percent drop.

"Notice that the downward trend in the city's jail [and prison] population began before the Bloomberg administration, and was dropping at a faster pace," the president of the Council on Criminal Justice, Adam Gelb, wrote to Newsweek in an email.

In fact-checking similar statements Bloomberg has previously made related to the drop in New York crime, Politifact reported that he "can't claim all the credit." Still, the website rated his statements about the lower rate of crime "mostly true."

"It's very difficult to attribute credit or blame to a specific administration," Gelb said. "It's complicated here by the fact that the trends were well underway before he took office."

As for whether or not it would be feasible to extend New York policies across the country, Deborah Archer, an associate professor of clinical law at New York University, told Newsweek that it is indeed "possible."

Archer's message aligned with what Bloomberg said in Jackson, detailing how programs needed to be put in place locally to be effective at reducing crime and incarceration. Bloomberg told his Mississippi audience that reducing the prison population required "improving schools, expanding job training, and investing in economic growth" and that the best way to keep people out of jail was to invest in "local programs." If he were elected president, he said he would do in communities across the country what he did in New York.

"If New York City can reduce its prison population significantly there is no reason the entire country cannot make significant strides towards decarceration," Archer told Newsweek in an email. "It is entirely possible to reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. But, it will require national leadership.… It would require a president and federal government committed to getting smarter about how we achieve criminal justice."

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Bloomberg speaks during an event to introduce his gun safety policy agenda at the Heritage Christian Center on December 5, in Aurora, Colorado. "The downward trend in the city's jail [and prison] population began before the Bloomberg administration, and was dropping at a faster pace," said Adam Gelb. Michael Ciaglo/Getty