Pubdate: Wed, 21 Oct 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Williams


More than 130 police chiefs, prosecutors and sheriffs - including 
some of the most prominent law enforcement officials in the country - 
are adding their clout to the movement to reduce the nation's 
incarceration rate.

Asserting that "too many people are behind bars that don't belong 
there," the officials plan to announce on Wednesday that they have 
formed a group to push for alternatives to arrests, reducing the 
number of criminal laws and ending mandatory minimum prison 
sentences. Members of the group are scheduled to meet Thursday with 
President Obama.

The group includes the police chiefs of the nation's largest cities, 
including William J. Bratton of New York, Charlie Beck of Los Angeles 
and Garry F. McCarthy of Chicago, as well as prosecutors from around 
the country, including Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney.

Democrats and Republicans alike have pressed to temper the economic 
and social costs of mass incarceration, which has been driven by 
harsher penalties approved by Congress and state legislatures from 
the 1970s to the 1990s, when crime rates were far higher than today.

But the group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and 
Incarceration, represents an abrupt public shift in philosophy for 
dozens of law enforcement officials who have sustained careers based 
upon tough-on-crime strategies.

"This is kind of the missing piece to the puzzle," said Inimai M. 
Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for 
Justice, a nonpartisan public policy group affiliated with the New 
York University School of Law, which helped form the organization.

The law enforcement leaders now say reducing incarceration will 
improve public safety because people who need treatment for drug and 
alcohol problems or mental health issues will be more likely to 
improve and reintegrate into society if they receive consistent care, 
something relatively few jails or prisons offer.

Mr. Bratton said that New York State and city law enforcement 
agencies "were well ahead of the curve in understanding that you 
can't arrest your way out of the problem."

The organization will release a report on Wednesday. "With momentum 
for criminal justice reform accelerating, we want to leave no doubt 
where the law enforcement community stands: We need less 
incarceration, not more, to keep all Americans safe," the group said.

The organization is counting on its members' more than 1,000 years of 
law enforcement experience to help persuade the public, courts and 
members of Congress and state legislatures to roll back tough laws 
and rigid judicial practices that have built a criminal justice 
system with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and 
costing $80 billion a year to maintain.

Police departments and district attorneys have a great deal of 
discretion when it comes to making arrests and filing charges for 
minor crimes. But because the public and government officials demand 
zero tolerance for crimes like shoplifting and possession of small 
quantities of drugs, such offenses continue to be prosecuted and 
often come with jail sentences.

The policies have disproportionately affected African-American men. A 
2013 study by the Sentencing Project found that police strategies 
that target black men and judges' harsher sentences for minorities 
meant that one in three African-Americans born that year could expect 
to spend time in prison, compared with one in 17 white men.

"After all the years I've been doing this work, I ask myself, 'What 
is a crime, and what does the community want?' " Superintendent 
McCarthy, a chairman of the group, said. "When we're arresting people 
for low-level offenses - narcotics - I'm not sure we're achieving 
what we've set out to do. The system of criminal justice is not 
supporting what the community wants. It's very obvious what needs to 
be done, and we feel the obligation as police chiefs to do this."

Chicago has seen a spike in shootings and homicides recently, but 
major crime has dropped by 39 percent since 2011, according to police 

The organization says its proposals will not hinder the ability of 
law enforcement to arrest and prosecute people who have committed 
violent acts or other serious crimes.

The law enforcement officials point out studies showing that more 
than one-third of prison and jail inmates have mental health or 
substance abuse problems, and are often in jail for crimes like drug 
possession and shoplifting.

In addition to mass incarceration's damaging social consequences, the 
group faulted the policy's economics as unsustainable.

A number of states in recent years have closed jails as state and 
local governments have struggled with budget shortfalls. Courts have 
ordered California, among other jurisdictions, to reduce overcrowding 
by offering early parole, modifying sentences or reducing the cost of 
bond to thousands of inmates.

"We're talking about using a scarce resource - beds in jails and 
prisons - in the most effective way," said Benjamin David, a member 
of the group and the district attorney for New Hanover and Pender 
Counties in North Carolina. "I would say to people, 'Who would you 
rather have in there - a bank robber or an addict who is aggressively 
panhandling downtown?' This is not a political issue, it is a moral issue."

The law enforcement officials said they would press Congress and 
state legislatures to reclassify some nonviolent felonies as 
misdemeanors and to eliminate some petty offenses from criminal 
codes. These changes, they said, would allow them to focus resources 
on those who have committed serious and violent crimes.

The group has also pledged to repair rifts with the communities they 
serve and to advocate eliminating mandatory minimum sentences to give 
judges greater authority in punishments.

"We are in the middle of a sea change focusing on who is in our 
prisons, why are they in there, and who is making the decisions," 
said Mr. Vance, a member of the group's steering committee. "At the 
end of the day, this is just common sense. This is nothing radical."

The group pointed to Florida's Criminal Mental Health Project as an 
example of a program that had successfully provided mental health 
treatment to those who were arrested and in need of care instead of 
sending them to jail.

The program, which provides training for the police to help people 
suffering from mental illness, led Miami police officers to arrest 
just nine of more than 10,000 people in response to mental health 
calls in 2013, according to the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Florida, 
which operates the project. Previously, the majority of those cases 
would have led to arrests.

Most people are brought to crisis stabilization facilities instead of 
jail, according to the project. The reduction in inmates has helped 
allow Miami-Dade County to close one of its jails.

Correction: October 21, 2015

An earlier version of a summary with this article misstated the 
number of law enforcement officials who have formed a group. It is 130, not 30.

Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom