The Movement to End Mass Incarceration Just Got Its Biggest Endorsement Yet


In a country more polarized than it has been in a century, true consensus on policy solutions has grown almost impossible to come by. But criminal justice reform is proving to be an exception.

On Wednesday, a collection of more than 130 current and former police chiefs, prosecutors and attorneys general from all 50 states called for fundamental changes to the laws that determine how the criminal justice system sorts out who goes to prison and for how long.

"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 in a report outlining its principles and policy prescriptions.

The new campaign, which comes weeks after a bipartisan reform bill was unveiled in Washington, includes some of the most influential law enforcement officials in the country. Some members of the group, called the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, will meet with President Barack Obama on Thursday.

The most notable name on the list is New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who, having crafted the city's notoriously aggressive policing strategy in the 1990s before going on to pioneer the policy in Los Angeles during the early 2000s, is now in a position of supporting a reversal of some of the harshest measures he once championed. 

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The formation of the group is a remarkable development. Some of the country's biggest players in the policing world are arguing something that would've been inconceivable in mainstream political discourse even just a few years ago: Being tough on crime and reducing the prison population are not mutually exclusive. Their plan for doing it, which includes significant re-evaluations of how law enforcement treats the mentally ill, along with a broad reconsideration of mandatory minimum sentencing, is a significant contribution to the growing call for reform.

The plan: The group labels the United States' current incarceration rate as a "crisis" in its report. The paper argues that the costs — whether measured in terms of social cost to families and communities, the $80 billion spent to run the system or the pattern of recidivism that it generates among its entrants — are often entirely out of line with the expected benefits of removing criminals from society.  

"Today, our country has 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prisoners," the report reads. "If the prison population were a state, it would be the 36th largest — bigger than Delaware, Vermont, and Wyoming combined. Too many people are behind bars that don't belong there." 

First on that list are the mentally ill. 

"Today, more than 50% of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, and 65% of prisoners meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction," according to the report. "Many of these individuals need treatment, not arrest and jail time. The criminal justice system cannot serve as a treatment plan, and in many cases, exacerbates illnesses and addictions." 

Instead of sending people with severe mental and substance abuse challenges to prison, the group argues they should often be referred to rehabilitative treatment. They call attention to successful programs such as one in Seattle that diverts people suspected of low-level drug crimes to the oversight of social workers in special programs, which have led to a 34% to 58% decline in likelihood of suspects committing crimes since a first arrest. Another program they suggest as a model is based in Miami, where police have decreased their arrest rate of people from mental health calls so dramatically that the county has been able to close one of its jails.

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Another essential issue on the group's agenda is reducing harshness in sentencing. They decry the way in which courts and jails are "flooded daily with people accused of minor offenses." They are pressing for politicians on the federal, state and local level to take measures to address the dire legacy of draconian laws passed during a period ranging from 1970s through the 1990s, as the political culture sought to combat high crime rates with a rash of punitive legislation. 

"We urge Congress and state legislatures to take up changes to reclassify nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors or eliminate petty or duplicative offenses from criminal codes, where appropriate," the report says.

"After all the years I've been doing this work, I ask myself, 'What is a crime, and what does the community want?' " Chicago police chief Garry McCarthy, a chairman of the group, told the New York Times. "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 other main reforms the group calls for include taking measures to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, which automatically lock certain offenders into long sentences, reducing maximum sentences and improving police-community relations. 

Why it matters: Criminal justice reformers view the new group's emergence as a positive development. 

"They bring real world experience to the issues of crime and punishment, and can articulate why it's not possible to 'arrest our way' out of the problem," Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told Mic.

Mauer believes a credibility derived from hands-on experience carries with it an especially powerful ability to sway public opinion.

"They help to frame the political environment on issues of public safety. For far too long, political leaders of both parties believed they needed to sound 'tough on crime' in order to be reelected." Mauer said. "So having law enforcement leaders now embracing reform will contribute to the evolving political momentum for a reconsideration of those policies." 

Alex Vitale, an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who specializes in policing, told Mic that he finds the group's call for reform "encouraging," but that there's still plenty more to be done. 

"There needs to be a clear repudiation of broken windows policing, which has lead to the widespread criminalization of mostly poor and non-white folks whose problems are rooted in their poverty and social exclusion, not criminality," Vitale said. 

That policing model, which involves swarming communities with police and targeting residents for low-level quality-of-life offenses such as jumping over a subway turnstile, is the kind of policing model that many of these law enforcement officials once actively defended or sought to establish. 

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There's also one major blind spot in the report, which was also evident in the very modest reforms proposed in the Senate earlier in October: violent crimes. 

Huge swathes of the criminal justice reform movement tend to fixate on drug-related offenses and minor crimes. But in reality, as John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School who specializes in sentencing law and statistical analysis, has explained, even a total end to prosecuting people for drug-related crimes would not change America's status as the world's most aggressive incarcerator in the world. 

"There is a growing body of research and international examples that show that long-term incarceration of even violent criminals is ineffective and often counterproductive, and wastes billions of dollars that could be spent on improving the neighborhoods where violent crimes predominate," Vitale told Mic in an email. 

This a much more difficult reform, politically and socially, to agitate for as a politician or a police officer. But serious reform demands serious, often uncomfortable self-questioning. The answers might surprise us.