Representatives from a coalition of more than 200 current and former police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors sent a letter to members of the Trump administration last week imploring them not to return to ineffective ways of reducing crime.
The Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration addressed the letter to President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and thanked them for its support of law enforcement, but cautioned against “lock ‘em up” policing strategies of the 1980s and 90s.
“We cannot incarcerate our way to safety,” the letter says. “Recent federal policy shifts seem to move away from this consensus, and risk repeating mistakes of the past. These include: restraining prosecutorial discretion by directing higher charges; limiting police accountability and oversight; and encouraging local police to expend limited resources on nonviolent crimes.”
The group says they think those policies are misguided and move crime and justice policy in a less effective direction. “As members of law enforcement, we do not believe that public safety is served by a return to tactics that punish without strong purpose,” said Ronal Serpas, one of the founders of the group, and the former Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.
At a meeting in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, members of the group were adamant that crime has been steadily decreasing nationwide over the last 25 years, not getting worse, as the Trump administration sometimes claims. The law enforcement leaders think things are getting better because of smarter policing and prosecution.
“The measure isn’t how many people we put in jail,” Serpas said. “The measure is whether the right people are put in jail. And that’s the people we’re afraid of, not the people we’re mad at.”
Still, Sessions has called for more drug prosecutions and has ordered prosecutors to go after the stiffest sentences, no matter what. The group says that’s not the right path. Instead, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., law enforcement officials should be asking themselves two questions when arresting or prosecuting: “Does it make us safer, and is it fair?”
“We write today to respectfully request that the Administration join the bipartisan effort for criminal justice reform, and align its policy agenda with that mission,” the letter says, before outlining five steps the administration can take to help law enforcement better protect the country.
Number one, the group wants the administration to prioritize federal resources to fight violent crime. The group applauded the administration’s efforts, but called the focus “diffuse.”
“Attorney General Sessions’ regular statements encouraging law enforcement to focus on drug and nonviolent offenders divert officers away from that vital mission (to fight violent crime),” the letter says. “Law enforcement resources are limited. Focusing on low-level non-violent offenders means less time to stop and bring to justice the most dangerous offenders.”
Number two, the group wants the Trump administration to urge Congress to pass federal sentencing reform, specifically the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. The measure would reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders and give judges more sentencing discretion.
“From our experience, we do not believe that always seeking the longest possible sentence will make our country safer,” the letter says. “More than 25 percent of the Justice Department’s budget is consumed by federal prisons. Every unnecessary dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on policing.”
The group also wants more resources for mental health and drug treatment, an increase in support for local community policing, and an expansion of re-entry programs to reduce the number of people returning to prison.
“Law Enforcement Leaders is grateful for the President’s outspoken commitment to public safety and reducing violence,” the letter says. “We respectfully request that the Administration reconsider the ways in which its policies have diverged from our perspective.”