America’s Top Police Officers Form New Group to Cut Prison Populations and Reform Criminal Laws

Nicole Fortier

Nicole Fortier

Fortier suggests that an understanding of the group requires a look at the history of incarceration in the U.S. During the 1990s, lawmakers passed a number of “tough on crime” laws that brought about an increase in the punishment of low-level, nonviolent crimes. Jails were the places to deal with all crimes. What this led to was mass incarceration. The populations in prisons and jails increased dramatically, as did the cost of maintaining prisons and jails. In recent times, policy makers and law enforcement officials have decided that this situation must change.

Fortier says that the Brennan Center has worked with law enforcement officials for years. She says that these officials have been enthusiastic about the prospect of change. Law enforcement officials want to keep the public safe and reduce the incarcerated population at the same time. Fortier says that the Brennan Center helped to connect people who desired to bring about change. She gives much credit to the group’s co-chairs, Ronal Serpas (former police superintendent of New Orleans) and Garry McCarthy (police superintendent of Chicago).

The two co-chairs helped identify others who shared their desire for change. The result of all these efforts was the formation of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. The group is committed to the idea of reducing incarceration. Fortier says that reducing incarceration for low-level criminals is a good thing for many reasons. Among these reasons is that incarcerating minor offenders puts them in an environment where they are surrounded by violent, hardcore criminals where they will not improve themselves. Also, when they are inevitably released into the community, the stigma of incarceration makes it difficult for them to find jobs and housing. These problems can turn minor offenders into career criminals.

The law enforcement officials in the new group see that this situation is an economic as well as a public safety problem. The group has four objectives, says Fortier: increasing alternatives to arrest (especially for those with addiction and mental health problems), restoring a balance to criminal law, reforming mandatory minimum sentences, and strengthening relations between law enforcement and communities. The group wants to help policymakers and members of the public understand how better laws can help reduce crime and also reduce incarceration. Group members also want to get their message out to all law enforcement officials nationwide. The group will look at specific states and specific policies for reform efforts.

Nicole M. Fortier is Counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Brennan Center’s Justice Program seeks to ensure a rational, efficient, effective, and fair criminal justice system. She works to reduce mass incarceration by realigning financial and perverse incentives in the system. As Counsel, she conducts extensive research into criminal justice funding structures, engages in federal advocacy, and participates in supervising NYU School of Law clinic students and legal interns. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of Sequence Media Group.