WASHINGTON -- A group of law enforcement leaders gathered in Washington on Wednesday to throw their support behind reducing the massive prison population in the United States, hoping their effort will provide “cover” for politicians and government officials to take on criminal justice reform.
The group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, believes that incarceration levels in the U.S. “have reached a crisis point.” Their statement of principles says that if the prison population was a state, it would be bigger than Delaware, Vermont and Wyoming combined.
And, as American politicians grapple with fixing the problems with the criminal justice system without opening themselves up to “soft on crime” attacks, the police officials say their effort should make it clear that it is possible to reduce arrests and prosecutions while maintaining public safety.
“That’s exactly why we’re here, to give people the cover they need to express ideas that need to be expressed,” Garry McCarthy, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, told The Huffington Post. “You’re not going to find tougher cops than right here. You’re just not; they don’t exist. Nobody here is weak on crime. What we are strong on is results.”
Members of the group will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday.
While some in law enforcement and in the political realm have painted supporters of criminal justice reform as anti-cop, the 130 officials who joined the group acknowledge that arrest, prosecution and incarceration -- the tools typically available to police -- can often do more harm than good.
“It’s a clear indication that law enforcement is behind reform efforts. A lot of people have said criminal justice reform is soft on crime. This is absolute proof that’s not the case,” said former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, who attended the launch event. Kerik, a law-and-order Republican who had been nominated for a top position in the Bush administration, has been a criminal justice reform advocate since he got out of federal prison for corruption charges and tax fraud.
“This is really cover for those political leaders. This tells them this is OK to do. In the political world, nobody wants to be labeled ‘soft on crime.’ All they have to do is walk in this room and they realize they can do what they want to do, what they need to do, what should be done, and it’s not soft on crime,” Kerik said.
Kerik said there’s been a big shift in criminal justice reform over the past few decades, pointing to the presence of Ed Meese -- who served as attorney general of the United States under President Ronald Reagan -- as an indication of the pendulum swing.
Meese said that there were “a lot of very good ideas” presented by the organization, but rejected the suggestion that his views or the views of the public had shifted dramatically since his time in office.
“The shift has not been in the objective, which is to reduce crime,” Meese said. “What we’re talking about today is not that you would not continue what has been good policing in the past, but at the other end … once a person is convicted of a crime, how do you handle that person?”
Meese said he had “not been an advocate of mandatory minimums” in general, because he believed “judges have to have a certain amount of discretion.” But he said mandatory minimums came about because judges were being “too lenient” in the past.
“We’re looking at now not leniency, but better handling of people,” Meese said. “They’re not being soft on crime because nobody is getting away with crime, and the whole purpose is to be more effective in our treatment of crime. Certainly that’s not being soft on crime.”
Police departments don’t have much control over the variables that contribute to crime, Charles McClelland, chief of the Houston Police Department, added. The cycle of incarceration starts during someone’s younger years and, by the time they hit their 20s, these people are convicted felons without education, job skills or opportunities to work, he said.
“It’s a complex equation but it’s really simple … when you think about it,” he said. “If folks, especially young people, have no legitimate ways to support themselves, they’re going to find illegitimate ways.”
“Look at the business formula for urban neighborhoods in big cities. What do you find? Liquor stores, pharmacies, pawn shops [and] quick [check-cashing] businesses. That’s it,” he continued. “So with that formula it is a recipe for failure.”
It falls on law enforcement, McClelland said, to advocate for better policies that don’t criminalize entire groups of people and that encourage businesses to support those who want to turn their lives around, which is “an effective crime-reduction strategy.”
“We have to use our bully pulpits as police chiefs to bring all of those other institutions together,” he said. “Because law enforcement didn’t invent this situation that we’re in and we can’t solve it by ourselves.”
The law enforcement leaders involved in the group believe there are too many people behind bars who don’t belong there and that officers and prosecutors “often come in contact with individuals who would be better served with responses outside the criminal justice system.”
Officers often lack anything “beyond arrest and prosecution” to respond to the situations they face, the group said. “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,” its principles statement said.
The organization wants Congress and state legislatures to reclassify nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors and “eliminate petty or duplicative offenses from criminal codes, where appropriate.” They said mandatory minimums and three-strikes policies “are typically overly punitive.”
Members of the organization said that these conversations about the need for reform were taking place long before the unrest in Ferguson and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group, which formally launched Wednesday, formed within the past year and has had organizational support from the Brennan Center.
The law enforcement leaders are speaking out at a convenient time, as the American public and both sides of the political aisle are increasingly supportive of changes to the criminal justice system and the need for police reform. David Menschel, a civil rights attorney, said that the organization included some of the "VERY WORST enforcers of mass incarceration." While some "genuine reformers" are involved, Menschel said that the group includes some of the "most stalwart pro-carceral types who cynically want cover."