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US police chiefs launch effort to end mass incarceration

Group of 130 law enforcement officials announces plan to reduce the prison population through new policies and services

A group of 130 law enforcement officials announced the formation of an organization on Wednesday to support the growing movement to end mass incarceration in the United States, where more people languish in prison than in any other country in the world.

Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration — which includes the police chiefs of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as high-level prosecutors and officials from all 50 states — announced the effort which aims to lower the prison population by reducing arrests for non-violent crimes, increasing mental health and drug addiction services and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum sentences played a vital role in increasing the prison population since their implementation in the 1980s, when crime rates were much higher than now and incarceration became a policy of first resort in many U.S. municipalities.

Members of Law Enforcement Leaders addressed reporters at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday, alongside a release of a “statement of principles” (PDF), which lays out the group’s desired reforms. Members will meet on Thursday with President Barack Obama, who has made the issue of criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his remaining time in office.

The new effort comes at a time of growing bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for efforts to reduce prison populations and change course on drug policy, with conservatives often framing the issues in economic terms, while liberals emphasizing social justice.

“Incarceration turns people’s lives upside down, hurts the communities they belong to, and costs taxpayers an astonishing $80 billion per year — all while doing little to reduce crime,” Law Enforcement Leaders’ statement of principles reads.

At Wednesday's rollout for the group, Charles McClelland, Houston's police chief, described how high prison rates were in part a consequence of aggressive national policies undertaken in the past three decades to curb drug use.

“The war on drugs has been a tremendous failure, and has had a disproportionate impact on black and brown communities,” he said. Criminal records for non-violent offenses make ex-convicts unemployable, he added. That keeps them from getting legitimate jobs, which continues cycles of poverty and law breaking, he said.

Law Enforcement Leaders hopes to bring a semblance of balance back to a justice system that has often equated the actions of a low-level drug dealer with that of a violent criminal.

“If you put a gun in somebody's face and say ‘Give me your money,’ or you're caught with 10 bags of heroin, do you think those should carry same weight? It doesn’t make sense,” Garry McCarthy, Chicago police superintendent, said during the press conference. 

Law Enforcement Leaders was formed with the help of the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute at New York University School of Law that researches criminal justice reform. 

Still, some experts worry that the new group’s effort could prove little more than a cosmetic, politically palatable shift if elected leaders and the police chiefs they hire fail to follow through on expanding the social services they say vulnerable communities need instead of aggressive policing. 

Others worry that many of the same officials whose harsh anti-drug policies helped lock up record numbers of people in the first place will now be put in charge of finding a solution to that problem.

“These chiefs are the same guys I’ve seen enforcing zero tolerance policing,” said De Lacy Davis, head of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability. “Some of these players in this group have been the architects of this failure are now putting themselves forward as though we should trust them with the reform,” said Davis, who served as a police officer in New Jersey.

To work, Davis said that the effort must involve far greater funding for social services in communities affected by police tactics that have lead to mass incarceration. Anti-gang violence groups, midnight basketball leagues and a massive increase in drug rehabilitation efforts are just some of the steps necessary to make reform meaningful, he said.

The formation of the new law enforcement group comes amid unprecedented pressure on police departments across the United States to respect civil liberties, following a series of high-profile cases in which black Americans have died at the hands of police or in their custody. 

When pressed on how that affected their decision to form the group, members of Law Enforcement Leaders said the move towards focusing on violent crime instead of drugs had started years before protests in Ferguson, New York or Baltimore. 

Joe Giacalone, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, had a more cynical take on their motivations. 

“The commissioners can’t afford to lose their jobs,” he said. Law enforcement officials serve at the pleasure of mayors, so “they’re going to talk party lines." 

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