Pubdate: Thu, 22 Oct 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Kristina Davis


Leaders Aim to Cut Incarceration Rates

About 100 law enforcement leaders including District Attorney Bonnie 
Dumanis gathered in the nation's capital Wednesday to announce a 
joint effort to reduce the number of people being put behind bars.

The newly formed Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and 
Incarceration issued a report Wednesday outlining its vision and 
recommendations, from providing more diversion programs for mental 
illness and substance abuse to reducing some low-level, nonviolent 
crimes to misdemeanors.

"Unnecessary incarceration exacerbates racial disparities, economic 
inequality, and hinders economic opportunity in the communities that 
need it most," the group said in explaining its mission statement. 
"Today, one in three black men will end up incarcerated. And 60 
percent of prisoners reentering society face long-term unemployment."

The group is made up of about 130 chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and 
corrections leaders, including a who's who in law enforcement - from 
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck to Chicago Police 
Superintendent Garry McCarthy to New York Police Commissioner William 
Bratton. San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman is also onboard, 
although she was not in Washington, D.C., this week.

The group is set to meet with President Barack Obama today.

Dumanis said being among so many like-minded leaders was encouraging.

"Bringing together all these people, it's a much more powerful voice, 
and a voice that can be heard in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and 
give support to those who want to do the right thing but sometimes 
politically are afraid to do the right thing," she said in an 
interview Wednesday.

"We want to join together so we can support legislation and 
legislators, so they're not afraid of being viewed as not being tough 
on crime."

The push for reform comes as law enforcement nationwide has tried to 
restore its relationship with the community, in the face of growing 
tensions over use-of-force and racial divisions. Developing more 
community partnerships is one area the group encourages.

Some of the other focus areas the coalition has identified:

Encourage programs that provide officers and prosecutors with 
alternatives to address mental illness and addiction outside of the 
justice system. More than 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have 
a diagnosed mental illness, and 65 percent suffer from substance 
abuse and addiction, according to the group.

Restore balance to criminal laws so the punishment fits the crime. 
That means reducing some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. "With 
proportional sentences, we can reduce both sentence lengths and the 
possibility of repeat crimes, breaking the cycle of incarceration for 
low-level offenders, and focus our resources on individuals who have 
committed serious and violent crimes," the group states.

Reform mandatory minimum laws, eliminating overly harsh punishments 
and giving judges discretion to mete out punishment on a case-by-case basis.

"We know that putting too many people behind bars does not keep us 
safe, especially for drug and nonviolent offenses. Research shows 
that imprisoning people at today's levels has little measurable 
crime-control benefit," the group's mission statement said. "In fact, 
jail and prison can kick-start a cycle of incarceration that turns 
first-time offenders into repeat offenders."

Chicago's McCarthy said law enforcement leaders and legislators need 
to reconsider "what constitutes a crime."

"If you stick a gun in somebody's face and say, 'Give me your money,' 
that's a crime," he said. "If you get caught with 10 bags of heroin, 
do you think that those two crimes should carry the same weight in 
the criminal justice system?"

California has already taken some major steps toward reform.

The report points out Proposition 47, which last year reclassified 
some low-level, nonviolent crimes - including simple drug possession 
- - from felonies to misdemeanors, is a success. The state has been 
under a federal mandate to reduce prison overcrowding, and with help 
from Prop. 47, the state was able to comply with the mandate a year 
ahead of schedule.

By the end of last month, there were 128,164 California prison 
inmates - about 7,800 less than a year earlier, data show.

"We recognize there is a crisis in the number of those incarcerated," 
Dumanis said. "In the end, we have to make room for the people who 
really need to be there."

The measure also requires the state to spend prison savings, as much 
as $200 million a year, on treatment and prevention programs. That 
funding won't be available until next year.

Prop. 47 was co-authored by retired San Diego Police Chief Bill 
Lansdowne, who has become a vocal advocate for criminal justice 
reform and has continued his mentoring relationships with many of the 
big-city police chiefs across the country.

Dumanis said the state's experience with Prop. 47 will be used as a 
learning tool to develop laws in other states, which she hopes will 
do a better job of it.

While she agreed with the premise behind reclassifying some crimes, 
she faulted the law for a lot of unintended consequences. Those 
include the possibility that offenders who get their felonies reduced 
will also be able to have their DNA erased from the state database, 
which she says would hinder criminal investigations. She and other 
county law enforcement leaders also said drug treatment should have 
been mandated and monitored under the law.

"Jail is not a treatment plan. You need to have another option, 
though. You can't just release them from custody and put them on the 
street and expect things to change," Dumanis said.

Other programs that San Diego County law enforcement have supported 
to reduce incarceration include diversion programs for juveniles, as 
well as adult re-entry programs offering substance abuse assistance, 
mental health services and job training, Dumanis said.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom