NOTE: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has sponsored the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation is supported by 32 senate cosponsors comprised of 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats and by scores of stakeholder and advocate groups. The bill was favorably reported out of committee by a bipartisan vote of 16-5.
Too many Americans go to prison but Congress can fix this problem
The Hill | July 17, 2018
By Peter Newsham, chief of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department
Ronal Serpas, former New Orleans and Nashville police superintendent
Every day in America, public safety is jeopardized by some of the very policies meant to protect it. Our country’s overuse of incarceration is one of them. It may come as a surprise to hear two police chiefs say that our approach to incarceration makes us less safe, but this is a more common belief in the law enforcement community than many might expect.
We both have dedicated our lives to public safety. Fighting crime has always been our paramount concern, first as beat cops and then as police chiefs in three major cities: Washington, New Orleans, and Nashville. That same duty to public safety compels us to speak out about the urgent need for comprehensive federal criminal justice reforms. Our long careers on the front lines in America’s fight against violent crime have taught us that keeping our communities safe requires a broader response than arrest and incarceration alone. We have to be smart on crime.
Harsh mandatory minimum sentences are at the root of this cycle. As police and prosecutors are forced to spend their time on low-level or nonviolent offenses, and taxpayers have to foot the bill for that unnecessary incarceration, we miss the opportunity to go after the most serious threats to public safety. Law enforcement resources are finite, and we should put them toward going after dangerous and violent offenders. To get serious about public safety and fully break the cycle of recidivism, we must rethink who we send to prison in the first place.
Space in prisons should be reserved for violent offenders. Too often, ineffective and outdated federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws send people to prison who don’t need to be there at all. Using incarceration as a knee-jerk response to low level or nonviolent drug offenses is one salient example. Now more than ever, with an opioid crisis devastating both rural and urban communities across the nation, there is an urgent need to change the default solution.
Police and prosecutors need Congress to take meaningful action, like moving forward with a bipartisan solution hammered out by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would shorten unnecessarily long sentences for low-level offenses, while also improving prison conditions and reentry services for men and women coming home from prison.
Peter Newsham is the chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia. Ronal Serpas is the former police superintendent of the city of New Orleans and the city of Nashville. Newsham is a member and Serpas is the executive director of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, a national organization focused on ensuring public safety and reforming the prison system in America.