With 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, our country leads the world in terms of people behind bars. That number includes countless unnecessary jailings that have a detrimental ripple effect on families and communities across the country. What are law enforcement officials doing about it? Until recently, not much. But the tide is starting to turn when it comes to implementing change on state and federal levels regarding the staggering statistics.
Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration is a new national organization formed to strike the balance between minimizing the number of those unnecessarily in jail and prioritizing support for legislation that keeps crime down.
The organization, which launched Oct. 20, began to meet earlier this year and grew out of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“As we started to see the media really talk about [reducing mass incarceration], we realized law enforcement’s voice was missing,” said Nicole Fortier, senior coordinator for the organization.
Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg and City Attorney Pete Holmes are among the 142 law enforcement officials involved with the new program. All 50 states are represented.
“It seems a few years after Professor Michelle Alexander [author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”] sounded the alarm for mass incarceration, more and more organizations are starting to understand that we should not be proud of the fact we are the No. 1 jailer on the planet,” said Holmes. “We need to understand how that happened and how we can undo it. That’s why this group is really timely.”
Holmes expressed the bipartisan effort required to create effective changes, and the importance of the array of experience within the organization, which includes seasoned and new prosecutors and police chiefs of major cities. “Change comes slowly, especially change which has so much money behind it,” Holmes said.
“We have to win over good people who care about their communities but are part of a system that defines certain conduct as criminal,” Holmes said.
The organization highlights four pillars that it has committed to support: increasing alternatives to arrest (for example, mental health treatment); restoring balance to criminal laws; reforming the mandatory minimums (“three strikes, you’re out”); and strengthening ties between communities and law enforcement.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is an example of a local pilot program that can be discussed nationally as one of the many possible solutions. The King County program treats low-level crimes through social services rather than criminal justice channels.
A variety of organizations nationwide have been pushing for change, such as Seattle’s Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC). “This effort will spark temporary reform,” said Afam Ayika on the Law Enforcement Leaders program. Ayika is involved with a variety of community organizations, including EPIC, and he is a Community Organizer at Real Change.
He added, “What is needed is accountable systemic change fostered by those within the system that proclaim themselves leaders.”
Ayika emphasized “personal and internal institutional reform” is necessary, in conjunction with community-based alternatives and reform at the top to produce essential change.
While there are no plans yet for Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration to work with community organizations, there’s possible room to work together.
“We’re taking requests and hoping to meet with any groups we can to find common ground,” Fortier said.
The group plans to meet once a year, in addition to a national event; the steering committee will meet quarterly.