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Baltimore candidates for mayor outline plans for criminal justice reform

A dozen candidates for mayor highlighted their plans Wednesday to overhaul Baltimore's criminal justice system by re-evaluating the role of police in schools, arrests of drug addicts and the way ex-offenders are re-integrated into communities.

The two-hour forum – hosted by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, Associated Black Charities and Baltimore City Paper – revealed how the candidates would tackle some of the most pressing matters facing the city following last spring's unrest, such as whether Baltimore should spend less money on police. Roughly 200 people gathered in Union Baptist Church in Upton for the forum.

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Dominique Moore, vice chairwoman of the Associated Black Charities board, said the forum was a chance to demand better of the city's elected officials.

"We have a hand in deciding who will be at the wheel of repair, because there's a lot that needs to be repaired," Moore said. "We will not have business as usual. … Your time and your vote is how you invest in your community."

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Most the candidates said the city needs to rein in spending at the Police Department, but Democrat Elizabeth Embry, chief of the state Attorney General's criminal division, said she wasn't sure promising to cut the police budget was constructive.

"It's very easy right now to say, 'I'll cut the Police Department,' but we're in a moment when people are not receiving 911 service for break-ins and they want community policing," Embry said.

The question the next mayor should be focused on is how to spend the money smarter, she said. For instance, Embry said the city spends an "unbelievable" amount on police overtime costs, rather than on taking more aggressive steps to keep the department fully staffed or looking to route substance abusers out of the criminal justice system and into treatment.

Engineer Calvin Young III, also a Democrat, said the city needs to examine alternative methods to lowering crime, such as maximizing the correlation between using micro-loans to invest in businesses as a way of reducing violence.

"Entrepreneurs can really change the city, specially when it comes to public safety," Young said.

Other Democrats participating were Patrick Gutierrez, a former bank operations manager; DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist; City Councilmen Nick Mosby and Carl Stokes; state Sen. Catherine Pugh; and Cindy Walsh, a researcher. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not seeking re-election.

Republicans included Chancellor Torbit, the brother of a slain police officer, and Larry O. Wardlow Jr., a transportation coordinator. Green candidates were activist Joshua Harris and Army veteran Emanuel McCray.

Two of the leading Democrats, former Mayor Sheila Dixon and businessman David Warnock, did not attend.

Karen Houppert, editor of the City Paper, asked the candidates whether police should remain in city schools. She noted the recent release a video that showed an officer slapping and kicking a student outside a Clifton Park high school. Houppert also asked the candidates whether the current Department of Justice investigation of the Police Department should be expanded to include the school police.

Mckesson, a former school administer, said the Justice Department probe should include a review of school police practices and patterns. The question of whether to have police in the schools is more complicated, he said.

"There are people who are trying to get into schools to harm our kids, and we need to make sure there is protection," he said. "I am not convinced that school resource officers need to be involved in the discipline process."

Stokes said the two schools he helped found and operate turned down offers from the school system to provide officers. Instead, he said, the schools relied on a set standard of respect and discipline, as well as providing outlets for the students to express themselves through music, debate and robotics.

"What we did in those schools is what we should do in all schools," Stokes said.

Mosby said school police can serve an important purpose, but they need to improve the way they function to better serve in the growth and success of students.

"We need a paradigm shift with our educational structure and the way we do that is through community schools," he said. "We can no longer expect our teachers to also be social workers and psychologists, conflict resolution experts."

On the question of what specific steps the candidates would take to permanently move ex-offenders out of the criminal justice system Pugh outlined a series of plans. She wants a mobile employment unit that travels to communities to interact directly with ex-offenders and help them learn about and apply for available jobs. Pugh said she also wants to help ex-offenders start their own businesses, as well as provide wrap around services as they leave prison to successfully transition back into the community.

Harris said job training, living wages and corporate investment in communities are key steps to preventing ex-offenders from returning to prison.

"We need to invest in equal opportunity and equal access for our returning citizens so we can break this cycle of, you get in trouble, you go to jail, you get out, you can't get a job and so now you go back to prison," Harris said.

Torbit said the solution starts with a simple first step: "We have to stop treating people as felons after they have served their time."

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