"Police departments cannot be at war with the communities they serve," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
"The criminal-justice system is not really broken. It's producing the results it was designed to produce, and those are the wrong results. We have to change the way we think about crime," said Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy.
Beck and McCarthy are part of a new group of more than 130 top law-enforcement officials and prosecutors called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, which launched Wednesday. The group's members traveled to Washington to call for fundamental change in crime and punishment in the U.S.—particularly around drug-related enforcement. They will participate in a roundtable discussion on justice reform and meet with President Barack Obama at the White House Thursday.
Many law-enforcement officers and prosecutors in attendance spoke about the need to help people re-enter society after incarceration; alternatives to arrest; prevention and mentoring programs; new ways to handle the mentally ill; and job programs and training. Many of the policies they plan to push would reduce mass incarceration.
The mission statement of the organization reads, "From experience and through data-driven and innovative practices, we know the country can reduce crime while also reducing unnecessary arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration." The U.S. has more than 2.2 million people behind bars at a cost of over $70 billion annually.
"Incarceration has to be replaced with something else. It has to be replaced by something better. There are very few beds in our prisons, and more than enough people who deserve to be there, and we'll help them get there. But what we want to do is get the ones who commit violent crimes and make sure they stay there for a long time, and make sure they are not replaced by someone who could be addressed in a whole different manner," Beck said at the launch event.
"We're looking for commonsense criminal-justice reform. We're arresting the wrong people and we're measuring the wrong things," said McCarthy when asked what the group would push for during their White House visit.
"We are at 50-year lows in crime in America today. And I would predict that if we free up that time we are spending on things that are an alternative to arrest, if we free up the bed space with changes in mandatory minimums … and work through the community, I would predict we could drive violent crime down even lower," said Ronal Serpas, a former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.
"That's why we're here—to give people the cover they need to express ideas that need to be expressed. You are not going to find tougher cops than right here. You're not. What we are strong on are results," said Beck.
"We have to have an avenue for people to become productive members of society. It is cheaper to keep someone out of jail and prevent crime. In the state of Texas it costs over $60,000 a year to keep one inmate locked up for a year," said Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland Jr. "That may get you a semester at Harvard," he quipped.
In a justice-reform debate dominated by academics, members of Congress and Washington advocates, the new law-enforcement group is filling a gaping hole by providing the voice of law enforcement and of prosecutors who have to deal day to day with the details of the U.S. criminal-justice system.
The group's timing in the increasingly crowded debate couldn't be better: The Senate Judiciary Committee will mark up a justice bill entitled the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act on Capitol Hill Thursday. The new legislation includes two new mandatory-minimum penalties.
The law-enforcement officials were asked if their involvement had something to do with the Black Lives Matter movement and events protesting police brutality in the aftermath of Ferguson, Mo. Many of the police chiefs stressed that they had been talking about certain reform issues for years.
"We've already talked about the disparities and impact that mandatory sentences have had on black and brown communities, even the difference in sentencing when it comes to crack versus powder cocaine. Those conversations have been going on long before Ferguson and Baltimore," said McClelland.
In addition to Beck, McCarthy, Serpas and McClelland, the group is led by New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Ben David, district attorney for North Carolina's New Hanover and Pender counties. The steering group for the new group includes New York County District Attorney Cy Vance.