Metro-East News

‘Reform worth pursuing’: Police leaders call for cutting inmate numbers

From staff and wire reports

Prisoners spend time inside the day-room of the St. Clair County Jail in Belleville on Wednesday afternoon. The jail avoids overcrowding through use of their “cop-out" program. “Every Thursday we have ‘cop-out Thursday’ and we release the non-violent offenders to try to get our number down below that 418 mark, but get prepared for the weekend.” Said St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson. “Over the weekend a lot of things happen and our population could go over that 418 mark, so we try to keep it down so we don’t get sued for people sleeping on the floor or any of the other sanitary issues.”
Prisoners spend time inside the day-room of the St. Clair County Jail in Belleville on Wednesday afternoon. The jail avoids overcrowding through use of their “cop-out" program. “Every Thursday we have ‘cop-out Thursday’ and we release the non-violent offenders to try to get our number down below that 418 mark, but get prepared for the weekend.” Said St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson. “Over the weekend a lot of things happen and our population could go over that 418 mark, so we try to keep it down so we don’t get sued for people sleeping on the floor or any of the other sanitary issues.” Belleville News-Democrat

More than 130 police chiefs, prosecutors and sheriffs — including some of the most prominent law-enforcement officials in the country — have added their clout to the movement to reduce the nation’s incarceration rate.

Asserting that “too many people are behind bars that don’t belong there,” the officials announced on Wednesday that they have formed a group to push for alternatives to arrests, reducing the number of criminal laws and ending mandatory minimum prison sentences.

Members of the group met Thursday with President Obama. The group includes the police chiefs of the nation’s largest cities, including William J. Bratton of New York, Charlie Beck of Los Angeles and Garry F. McCarthy of Chicago, as well as prosecutors from around the country, including Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, and Anita Alvarez, the Cook County state’s attorney.

Local police and prosecutors said they’re open to some of the ideas being proposed. They say crimes committed by people with mental illnesses is a particular concern.

“We have limited resources,” said St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, “so if we can get an addict or mentally ill person out of prison to make room for violent offenders and sexual predators, then that’s reform worth pursuing. I’d rather have law enforcement leading these reforms than those on the extreme left who believe no one should go to prison for anything or those on the extreme right who simply want to cut government including public-safety services just for the sake of cutting.”

Kelly added: “I’d rather have law enforcement leading these reforms than those who have agendas which aren’t in the best interest of public safety.”

We have limited resources, so if we can get an addict or mentally ill person out of prison to make room for violent offenders and sexual predators, then that's reform worth pursuing.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven said that overcrowding in jails continues to be a problem, and said there are other ways besides incarceration to deal with some of the problems faced by his officers.

“If we could address mental illness better in this country… it would help,” he said. “A jail is no place for someone suffering from mental illness, but they keep ending up there because the services available to them get cut.”

Keeven said about half his officers are trained in mental health assessment, to help their judgment in cases where a person might need mental health treatment or other services — “to get people the help they need instead of locking them up,” he said.

Keeven said he hopes to have all 43 officers trained eventually. “That’s another way to give our officers a tool to help people get the help they need, rather than filling up (Sheriff) John Lakin’s jail.”

The Madison County Jail has a capacity of 300 inmates. When the population gets to 275, there’s a system that kicks in to keep the jail from going over capacity.

Lakin said his department keeps an ongoing review of inmates to assess which might be safely released. Criteria includes whether the charge is violent or nonviolent, the inmate’s criminal history, how much time he’s been in jail and his behavior inside, the assessed risk to society if released pending trial, mental health and drug dependency issues, flight risk, etc.

If the sheriff’s office and judicial system agree that the risk to society is minimal, Lakin said, then the inmate may have a reduction in bond or be released on own recognizance pending trial.

“At the end of the day, if those in jail need to be incarcerated, then they will remain incarcerated,” Lakin said. “We do not use this simply as a way to stay under capacity.”

Another way police try not to overcrowd the jails: choosing how to write the ticket. For example, Keeven said, if someone is caught with a small amount of marijuana, a misdemeanor charge under state law means a trip to jail, a $100 bond and a drug conviction that can possibly follow the person for the rest of his life.

But Keeven said for young, first-time offenders, his officers can choose to issue a municipal violation ticket instead. It doesn’t send them to jail, and while they will pay a fine, it won’t be on a permanent criminal record.

“It gives the kid a break, it’s a fine, and it doesn’t follow you or clog the jail,” he said.

Lakin said he firmly believes addressing issues of drug addiction and mental health will reduce criminal activity and the number of people incarcerated.

“These are not the only causes of criminal activity — socioeconomic issues as an example,” Lakin said. “But I believe that dealing with the root issues of crime will have a greater impact on reducing crime than that of simply increasing arrests.”

Police departments and district attorneys have a great deal of discretion when it comes to making arrests and filing charges for minor crimes. But because the public and government officials demand zero tolerance for crimes like shoplifting and possession of small quantities of drugs, such offenses continue to be prosecuted and often come with jail sentences.

Democrats and Republicans alike have pressed to temper the economic and social costs of mass incarceration, which has been driven by harsher penalties approved by Congress and state legislatures from the 1970s to the 1990s, when crime rates were far higher than today. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is among them, and has asked a panel to find ways to reduce the state’s prison population by 25 percent.

The new group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, represents an abrupt public shift in philosophy for dozens of law enforcement officials who have sustained careers based upon tough-on-crime strategies.

“This is kind of the missing piece to the puzzle,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy group affiliated with the New York University School of Law, which helped form the organization.

The law enforcement leaders now say reducing incarceration will improve public safety because people who need treatment for drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues will be more likely to improve and reintegrate into society if they receive consistent care, something relatively few jails or prisons offer.

The organization is counting on its members’ more than 1,000 years of law enforcement experience to help persuade the public, courts and members of Congress and state legislatures to roll back tough laws and rigid judicial practices that have built a criminal justice system with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and costing $80 billion a year to maintain.

Police departments and district attorneys have a great deal of discretion when it comes to making arrests and filing charges for minor crimes. But because the public and government officials demand zero tolerance for crimes like shoplifting and possession of small quantities of drugs, such offenses continue to be prosecuted and often come with jail sentences.

The policies have disproportionately affected African-American men. A 2013 study by the Sentencing Project found that police strategies that target black men and judges’ harsher sentences for minorities meant that one in three African-Americans born that year could expect to spend time in prison, compared with one in 17 white men.

“After all the years I’ve been doing this work, I ask myself, ‘What is a crime, and what does the community want?’” said McCarthy, Chicago’s police chief, who is the chairman of the group. “When we’re arresting people for low-level offenses — narcotics — I’m not sure we’re achieving what we’ve set out to do. The system of criminal justice is not supporting what the community wants. It’s very obvious what needs to be done, and we feel the obligation as police chiefs to do this.”

After all the years I’ve been doing this work, I ask myself, ‘What is a crime, and what does the community want?’ When we’re arresting people for low-level offenses — narcotics — I’m not sure we’re achieving what we’ve set out to do.

Garry McCarthy, Chicago police superintendent

Chicago has seen a spike in shootings and homicides recently, but major crime has dropped by 39 percent since 2011, according to police statistics. The organization says its proposals will not hinder the ability of law enforcement to arrest and prosecute people who have committed violent acts or other serious crimes.

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