Republican nominee Donald Trump says America will “be a country of law and order” if he becomes president. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton says she wants to reform the “criminal-justice system from end to end.” But how will they get there?
Earlier this month, police chiefs across the country sent the candidates a questionnaire asking for specific, concrete steps to reach these goals. And major law-enforcement groups representing 30,000 officials sent a letter to the candidates with some answers they know work, from years of firsthand experience.
I’m a conservative, third-generation officer who worked over 34 years in law enforcement, including ten years serving as police chief in New Orleans and Nashville. Early on in my career I spent years spinning in circles, walking the same people in and out of jail. But as I worked my way up the ladder I began to promote and implement policies that would cut crime and reduce unnecessary incarceration at the same time.
One of my most vivid memories from my early days as a beat cop is of driving through the streets of New Orleans with a local legend, a former Golden Gloves boxer, in the back of my cruiser. His storied career had been wrecked by drugs and alcohol, and I had just arrested him for fighting in a bar. Even as a young officer I knew enough to realize that jail wouldn’t solve his problems. But he committed a crime, so off we went.
It was the 1980s, and in the eyes of city, state, and federal policymakers, the only answer to rule-breaking was handcuffs and jail. Officials spent the last few years — and would spend the next few decades — passing laws that demanded more arrests and harsher punishments for even low-level offenses.
Good policy is not about locking up everyone; it’s about locking up the right ones.
Years later, as Nashville police chief, I figured out that all my officers had their own “boxer.” They were frustrated with re-arresting the same people — many of whom were suffering from addiction or mental illness. Instead of using jail space strictly for violent offenders, they were locking up those who merely needed help.
We made some much-needed changes. In 2010, I worked with law-enforcement officials across Tennessee to pass bipartisan legislation that released low-level offenders and prioritized prison space for violent criminals. Not surprisingly, the more we focused on the truly dangerous, the more crime fell and the more our community supported us. It became clear that good policy is not about locking up everyone; it’s about locking up the right ones.
When I returned to New Orleans, this time as police superintendent, I found that the department I left years before was still heavily relying on arrests for minor offenses. I encouraged alternatives for quality-of-life crimes that disrupted neighborhoods. Affidavits replaced handcuffs, and over the next four years arrest rates fell nearly 40 percent, and murder rates hit a 28-year low.
There are many examples of local success stories across the country. But to truly spur large-scale change, national leaders must show support.
That’s why I and so many of my law-enforcement colleagues are calling on the next president to make reducing unnecessary imprisonment a principal goal. One important place to start: push the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a bill that would recalibrate sentencing policy to meet the needs of the 21st century.
The message from law enforcement to politicians is clear: Using jail as a knee-jerk response to all crime doesn’t work. Reducing unnecessary incarceration will help us do our jobs better and keep crime down. It’s long past time to concentrate resources and funding where they’ll do the most good, and to be responsive and compassionate toward people who are getting caught up in the system; they need help.
My evolution on criminal-justice policy is not as drastic or uncommon in the law-enforcement community as outsiders might suspect. Police have seen firsthand how overly harsh laws affect ordinary people. We know how ill equipped the criminal-justice system is to address the underlying social and economic issues that cause crime. Trying to force it to do so strains the crucial relationship between police and the communities they serve. It impedes progress toward everyone’s shared goal: a safe place to live.
The more we delay needed changes, the greater the cost in financial, human, and public-safety terms. I know because, two years into retirement, I still see that boxer’s face and thousands of others in my rearview mirror.
— Ronal Serpas is a former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department and the chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.