Pubdate: Thu, 22 Oct 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company


"We need less incarceration, not more, to keep all Americans safe."

Criminal justice reform groups have been saying this for years. This 
time the source is unexpected: More than 130 of the nation's top 
law-enforcement officials, including big-city police chiefs, 
sheriffs, prosecutors and attorneys general, have joined the call to 
end to the harsh, counterproductive practices and policies that have 
driven America's devastating prison boom, destroyed communities and 
written off an entire generation of young men of color.

In a news conference on Wednesday, officials who have spent their 
careers fighting crime stood up to say that too often, the aggressive 
approach has only made matters worse. "It's really clear that we can 
reduce crime and at the same time reduce incarceration rates," Garry 
McCarthy, Chicago's police chief, said. The group includes, among 
others, the police chiefs of New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, 
Philadelphia, and Houston.

It was a remarkable moment, even as it underscored the central role 
the police and prosecutors have long played in creating and 
sustaining the current incarceration crisis.

The group is focusing on three broad areas of reform, all of which 
have been successful in cities and states around the country.

First, more alternatives to arrest and prosecution, which would 
reduce the number of people entering prison in the first place. This 
is particularly important for substance abusers and the mentally ill, 
who make up disproportionate numbers of those behind bars.

Second, the reduction or elimination of overly severe sentencing 
laws, which have been shown to have little or no impact on future 
crime, even as they destroy lives and burden state budgets. The 
police chiefs called for some nonviolent felonies to be reclassified 
as misdemeanors, as California did last year, and for other small 
crimes to be taken off the books. They also seek the reform of 
mandatory-minimum sentences, and giving judges more flexibility to 
tailor punishments to individual circumstances.

Third, the rebuilding of relations with local communities, especially 
those of color, where the trust between residents and the police has 
completely broken down.

To achieve these laudable goals, law enforcement officials will have 
to limit their own extremely broad powers. It remains to be seen, for 
example, how the group will square its push for fewer arrests with 
aggressive policing philosophies like the deeply problematic "broken 
windows" approach, which was pioneered by New York's police 
commissioner, William Bratton, a member of the new group.

And, of course, many district attorneys and law-enforcement officers 
strongly oppose any real reform. They have pushed back vigorously 
against even moderate measures, like decriminalizing possession of 
small amounts of marijuana. And they are among the loudest voices 
protesting Congress's efforts to pass bipartisan federal sentencing 
reform, which the new group supports.

More than anyone else, the police understand what violent crime looks 
like. They risk their lives every day. If they can stand up and say 
that America needs to change fundamentally the way it handles crime 
and punishment, everyone should be listening.
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