WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg, whose presidential campaign is struggling to appeal to African-American voters even as it gains more support from Democratic donors, on Thursday released a plan to “dismantle racist structures and systems” in the federal government.
Mr. Buttigieg’s announcement comes after weeks of scrutiny of his record on racial justice as mayor of South Bend, Ind., where a white police officer shot and killed a black man last month.
The episode turned into a severe test of his leadership, spawning protests among South Bend’s black residents and raising questions about his handling of policing issues in the city. Mr. Buttigieg suspended his campaign for several days to return and meet with members of the black community.
Mr. Buttigieg has offered a frank acknowledgment of his shortcomings in this area, saying during last month’s debate that he has not done a sufficient job recruiting police officers of color during his seven years as mayor.
“I couldn’t get it done,” he said.
Without increasing his standing among black voters, Mr. Buttigieg faces a difficult path to the White House. He entered the campaign largely unknown among black voters, many of whom received their first introduction to him through news about the South Bend shooting.
Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee member from California who is the daughter of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said Mr. Buttigieg has “personally evolved on the issue of race” but has yet to prove to the party’s base that he has an instinctive feel for racial issues.
“It is one thing to get credit for evolution and change but it is quite another to be there viscerally,” Ms. Pelosi said.
The policy proposal Mr. Buttigieg unveiled Thursday appeared to be a way to position himself at the forefront of efforts to reduce longstanding inequities in federal and state criminal justice systems.
The plan includes health, education and voting-rights reforms. But it is particularly focused on addressing discrimination in policing and criminal justice.
His goals include many of the major changes sought by liberal criminal justice reform groups, and in some cases conservative groups as well.
They include eliminating federal incarceration for drug possession and reducing sentences for other drug offenses; legalizing marijuana at the federal level; limiting solitary confinement; and abolishing the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentencing.
Mr. Buttigieg also called for the establishment of several measures specifically addressing policing: tightening the legal standard for police officers to use deadly force; creating a federal database of officers fired from police departments; and persuading states to disclose more data on use of force, line-of-duty deaths, traffic stops and officer misconduct.
Derek Cohen, the director of Right on Crime, a leader in conservative efforts to reform the criminal justice system, estimated that 20 percent of Mr. Buttigieg’s proposals were within the purview of the federal government. The rest are squarely within the authority of state and local officials, he said.
The overwhelming majority of the more than two million inmates in the United States are not in federal custody, but in state and local prisons and jails.
Mr. Buttigieg’s plan includes “some things that show a flicker of brilliance, and other things that seem like chasing down a rabbit hole,” Mr. Cohen said.
He added that, mathematically, one of Mr. Buttigieg’s stated goals — reducing the number of prisoners by 50 percent — would require freeing many violent offenders.
Yet Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who is now executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of reform-minded local prosecutors, said many of the proposals could help undo damage the federal government had done by setting a draconian tone for states on criminal justice policies.
“There is a lot that leaders can do at the federal level to roll back decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric and thinking,” Ms. Krinsky said.
“This frame is the right one, and there is a lot a president can do by using the bully pulpit to advance reforms,” she said, though she added that the plan could still do more “to penalize and incentivize states that don’t follow suit.”
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