Too many Americans go to prison but Congress can fix this problem

Too many Americans go to prison but Congress can fix this problem
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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.

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Tough on crime policies borne out of the failed “war on drugs” often leave police with no option but to spend their time arresting people, many of whom are struggling with addiction or mental health issues, for nonviolent offenses. The law demands we put them behind bars for a lengthy sentence, even as we know full well that prison will do nothing to solve the underlying issues driving these low-level offenses. We know that long prison sentences for low-level or nonviolent drug offenders do not decrease recidivism. All they do is ensure that these people will end up in the back of someone else’s squad car down the line.

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 Too often, ineffective and outdated federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws send people to prison who don’t need to be there at all.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.

That is why we, along with more than 60 other police chiefs and prosecutors in a group called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, have written a letter urging Congress to fix harsh mandatory minimum sentences that drain resources away from fighting violent crime. Some in Washington have proposed a more piecemeal approach of passing prison reforms to address this problem on the back end and tackling sentencing reforms at some point in the future.

However, our decades in law enforcement have shown that an approach that only focuses on helping people coming out of prison is only part of the solution. Prison reform matters, but we will never fix this issue unless we also tackle the front end of the problem by changing the laws that send too many people to prison in the first place.

Police and prosecutors need Congress to take meaningful action, like moving forward with a bipartisan solution hammered out by Sen. Charles GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care: House set to vote on bill targeting drug companies for overcharging Medicaid | Dems press Trump officials on pre-existing conditions | Tobacco giant invests .8B in Canadian marijuana grower House set to vote on bill cracking down on drug companies overcharging Medicaid Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform Political opposites come together for Bush funeral Live coverage: Washington honors George HW Bush with state funeral MORE (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.

Congress should not miss this opportunity to pass more comprehensive change. States like Florida and South Carolina have already proven that strategic sentencing reform can safely reduce nonviolent crime and incarceration at the same time. States like California have used the savings from reducing unnecessary incarceration to invest in community crime prevention, mental health services, and drug treatment. Congress should follow their lead. It will help us continue to keep crime at current historic lows, save taxpayer dollars, and ensure that law enforcement has the tools to concentrate on preventing future violent crime.

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.