Police Chiefs, Sheriffs and Prosecutors Join Prison Reform Movement

Maureen MurdockCriminal Justice System14 Comments

Man behind bars, prison reform

In an abrupt change in philosophy, more than 130 top law enforcement officials including those from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and others now support a roll back of tough laws and rigid judicial practices that have built a criminal justice system in the U.S. with the highest incarceration rate in the world. It also costs taxpayers $80 billion a year to maintain.

More than 1/3 of prison and jail inmates are incarcerated for low-level crimes like drug possession and shoplifting and need treatment for mental health or substance abuse problems rather than imprisonment. Law enforcement leaders now say that “reducing incarceration will improve public safety” because people who need treatment for mental illness and substance abuse will be more likely to improve and reintegrate into society if they receive consistent care which jails and prisons cannot provide.

This is an abrupt shift for law enforcement officials whose careers have been sustained by tough-on-crime strategies from the 1970s to 1990s. Police departments and prosecutors have a great deal of discretion in making arrests and filing charges for minor crimes and too many people are serving long sentences for shoplifting and drug possession. Law enforcement officials plan to convince Congress, state legislatures and the public to reclassify nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors so that they can focus on those who have committed serious and violent crime. They will also advocate for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences to give judges more discretion in sentencing.

What this means is a need for more effective mental health and substance abuse programs like Florida’s Criminal Mental Health Project which is a program that has successfully provided mental health treatment to those who were arrested and in need of care rather than jail. The program provides training for police to help people suffering from mental illness and it resulted in Miami police arresting just 9 of more than 10,000 people in response to mental health calls in 2013. Previously, these cases would have led to arrests.

This is a welcome move in addressing our country’s bloated criminal justice system. Now we need programs that not only treat those with mental health and substance abuse issues but train them to reintegrate into society through gainful employment.

14 Comments on “Police Chiefs, Sheriffs and Prosecutors Join Prison Reform Movement”

  1. martiglenn

    I am loving this vital conversation! It seems that a tiny bit of light is appearing on the horizon. Staying informed, helping keep others informed and encouraging professionals to work in this area are paramount. Thank you, as always, Maureen.

  2. Kim

    Yes, it’s been great to hear a few (paltry) reports about prisons paying more attention to getting prisoners out of solitary and into reform-potential situations. Here’s a link to The Takeaway (with John Hockenberry) discussing prison reform:
    http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/police-leaders-seek-end-mass-incarceration/

    Also, I wanted to alert you to a great statement that Bernie Sanders made regarding the inequity of spending money in this country for jails, not schools. I believe it was part of his speech at Liberty University:
    “We apparently do not have the funds to provide jobs or educational opportunities for our young people but we sure do have the money to throw them into jails. Today, the United States has more people in jail than any other country on earth, and many are serving time in inhumane conditions. That is not justice. That is the destruction of human life.”

    1. Maureen Murdock

      Thanks for this comment by Sanders, Kim. Here in Santa Barbara, we’re fighting a sheriff who is trying to push the construction of a new jail down the throat of its citizens in spite of the fact that there are NO re-entry programs for ex-offenders in SB, no education for prisoners, and no help with job placement.

  3. Bill Dial

    Congratulations to the sheriffs and the chiefs of police who are speaking out in support of eliminating needless criminalization and incarceration in our nation. Here in Santa Barbara our Sheriff is pushing the Supervisors and concerned citizens to waste millions of taxpayer dollars on building a new jail to increase the space and staff available to incarcerate more people. He should follow the example of the others mentioned in your blog, like the chiefs of police from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, instead of living in the past.

  4. lindawis

    Do you think the abrupt change in focus by law enforcement is due to the news stories and blogs (like yours) and the spotlight on the “new Jim Crow” from Michelle Alexander and others?

    1. Maureen Murdock

      Yes, I think Michelle Alexander’s book brought to light the disgraceful treatment of African Americans in such a way that policy makers could no longer ignore the inequities in incarceration. I also hope that news stories and blogs like mine have added to the conversation. But I think the real impetus has been the cost of incarceration and lawmakers finally agreeing that it’s unsustainable. Thanks for your comments.

  5. N.L. Speer

    This is such hopeful news! I know my son, who nearly died in Santa Barbara County Jail, has received a great deal of guidance, support and acceptance from the Santa Barbara County ACT Program since he was released in 2012. He is doing remarkably well! A little loving concern, enhanced by some practical guidance and stabilized medication, will go a long, long way in healing what is broken in this specific cultural imbalance.

    1. Maureen Murdock

      Thank you so much for letting my readers know about the success of the Santa Barbara County ACT Program for your son.We need more programs like ACT that support former inmates and their families.

  6. Hendrika de Vries

    So glad to hear that there is finally a move in the direction of treating mental illness as a disease and not a crime. Keep up the good work, Maureen. Your blogs provide important information.

  7. pjoy2012

    I had read about this the other day – a very positive development. Perhaps you have read of positive developments through our election here? Heaving out the last destructive PM and bringing in new energy and vision – Hooray !!!

  8. Ackerman Ruth

    you would love EDWINS the restaurant in our area that is staffed by previously incarcerated folks and trains them for jobs in the food service industry, offers them housing, counseling and mentorship etc >

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