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.
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.