A new group of over 130 law enforcement officials from across the country is working to reduce prison incarceration rates on the premise that “too many people are behind bars who don’t belong there.” They say public safety will benefit if many people currently incarcerated were placed in treatment programs to address addictions and mental health problems instead of being locked behind bars. This initiative impacts many families and children.
This is not a new argument, but it’s coming from new converts to this approach. Many of the sheriffs and police chiefs who are part of this coalition have built their reputations and political careers as being “tough-on-crime” professionals. President Barack Obama made note of that when he recently hosted members of the coalition for a discussion at the White House.
“We’re in a unique moment in which, on a bipartisan basis, across the political spectrum, people are asking hard questions about our criminal justice system and how we can make it both smart, effective, just, fair,” the president said. “I’m encouraged by the fact that law enforcement is making this point over and over again they have the credibility because they’re on the front lines.”
That credibility is enhanced when one considers that any alternative to incarceration would first and foremost put police officers at risk. By taking this position, they are willing to bet their own safety on the reforms they’re advocating. Nobody should take that lightly.
Many of their proposals have long had the support of this newspaper, notably the reduction and even elimination of mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines that don’t allow judges to use appropriate discretion when dealing with specific offenders. Such a one-size-fits-all approach is often politically appealing to an electorate that wants to see dramatic action taken to reduce crime, but, in practical terms, it ends up doing more damage in the long term by wasting resources on convicts serving terms that are disproportionate to the crimes they’ve committed.
The issue of resources, both human and financial, is also essential to consider. It costs a great deal of money to keep people locked up, and a woefully overworked police force would be more effective if it could concentrate on truly dangerous offenders and spend less time with nonviolent crimes that could be handled in a far more cost-effective manner.
It’s time to take a good, long look at innovative alternatives to our current approach to law enforcement. We welcome this new coalition to the discussion, and we hope elected officials and community leaders give their recommendations a great deal of consideration.