Plenty of people agree that America should stop throwing every last shoplifter or weed-smoker in jail. On the right they get to talk about reducing incarceration’s burden on taxpayers; on the left it’s a victory for civil rights. Now, even the country’s top law enforcement officials—those who you’d think would be driving mass incarceration in the first place—are getting in on the act.
This week, a new group called Launch of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, composed of 130 police chiefs and government prosecutors, announced its support for the criminal justice movement. Its members are no slouches: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, and Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier all belong to the organization, and Chicago PD Superintendent Garry McCarthy is its co-chair.
Tomorrow, Law Enforcement Leaders will convene at the White House to speak about reducing imprisonment while “strengthening public safety” (these are still cops we’re talking about). Among their talking points are a more treatment-focused approach to offenders with drug or mental health problems, reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors, and ending federal mandatory minimums—all old sawhorses of the activist movement to end mass incarceration.
It’s encouraging, and it’s also a little funny to see these particular people get behind this particular cause—like McDonald’s rallying against hamburgers. In a story about the new group, the New York Times acknowledges that police and prosecutors “have a great deal of discretion” in interpreting and carrying out the very policies they’re railing against, and makes the case that pressure to be tough on crime from the public and elected officials forces them into the current overly punitive model.
“Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people. It involves arresting and imprisoning the right people,” McCarty said in a statement about Law Enforcement Leaders. “Arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders prevents us from focusing resources on violent crime.” It makes you wonder what inspired Bill Bratton to join. Through his tenures leading the NYPD and LAPD, and in his early advocacy for stop-and-frisk and broken windows policing, Bratton is something like the Michael Jordan of arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders. He must have been facing an awful lot of public pressure.