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Feds Can Help Reform Police, but Watch Out for Unintended Consequences

One piece of federal legislation played a pivotal role in the U.S. incarceration epidemic. Now Washington can help change it.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
December 15, 2014

Cross-posted on Reuters

In the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, protesters across the nation are looking to Washington for action and answers. This seems a strange disconnect, however, because policing is regarded as a local matter. The federal government, the public is told, has no jurisdiction over local law enforcement issues.

Yet Washington can and should take the lead on criminal-justice reform. The federal government can wield great influence in setting nationwide criminal-justice policy.

Consider the stunningly high incarceration rates in states across the nation. One piece of federal legislation, the 1994 crime bill, has played a pivotal role in the incarceration epidemic. The law, which was designed to reduce crime, gave states $9 billion to pass laws that would increase time spent behind bars.

The result, however, was an explosion in state prison populations that has made the United States the world’s largest jailor. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. This has immense fiscal, economic and social consequences — each prisoner costs taxpayers, on average, $30,000 a year, and inmates with criminal records, even for minor offenses, face significant challenges re-entering society. The racial disparities are also vast. One in three black men can expect to spend time behind bars.

Today, the federal government annually sends states and cities more than $4 billion for criminal-justice purposes, mainly for law enforcement. These funds run largely on autopilot. What the federal government chooses to fund, however, creates incentives for local police. For example, Washington’s funding priorities have supported mass incarceration by concentrating on the number of arrests and seizures police make, rather than tabulating the number of offenders diverted to mental health or drug treatment programs.

Washington can do much to reverse our overly punitive criminal-justice system. The Justice Department can investigate abusive law-enforcement practices in cities, further exposing problem areas. It can reduce its own prison populations and sentencing lengths, setting an example for the country. It can collect national data on the failure of the current system and on its economic and social toll on the country.

But most important, just as the federal government led states into mass incarceration with money, it can pull them out of it by financially rewarding states and cities for implementing an approach to crime that reduces both crime and incarceration. For example, the federal government can provide extra cash to states that decrease their prison populations. It can condition grants on whether recipients use the money to support practices that decrease crime while also decreasing unnecessary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonment. It can reward states and cities that focus on enforcing and punishing serious and violent crimes instead of petty ones. We can wait for Congress to act. Or the executive branch can take action now.

A generation of research has proven that decreasing crime and protecting individual liberties are compatible and complementary goals. States such as Texas, California, New York and New Jersey have reduced their prison populations and still reduced crime. Nationwide, since 2008 both crime and imprisonment have declined by about 10 percent. This is the first time that’s happened in 40 years.

It’s time to reap the benefits of increased public safety. The nightly protests in New York and other cities in response to a spate of killings of black men by white police officers demonstrated criminal-justice reform is a national issue that engages both the grass-roots and the elite. It requires a national response.

Part of the problem is that criminal-justice reform has been traditionally thought of as requiring dozens of bills in 50 different state legislatures — with no national solution. But that is not true.

Each state struggles with slightly different versions of the same problem — and state and local reforms have a vital role to play. But the overarching challenges are the same: too many arrests, prosecutions, prison sentences and parole revocations.

The states are not 50 separate planets orbiting on their own. Similar solutions can be implemented in different states. And states tend to follow the funding priorities laid out by the federal government.

Washington helped create this mess. It can help lead the country out of it.

(Photo: Flickr/BC)