Twenty-six years ago last week, a young New York City police officer named Edward R. Byrne was shot and killed in his patrol car during an early morning stakeout in South Jamaica, Queens.
His convicted killer, drug dealer Pappy Mason, it turned out, had wanted to “ice a cop” – and Byrne became one of the victims of the U.S. crime wave in the 1980s. The Feb. 26, 1988 killing attracted national attention. It was a symbol of the urban violence that was the pressing issue of the time; and as part of the growing revulsion to pervasive crime in cities like New York, the Department of Justice established the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG), to fund local law enforcement agencies across the country.
That effort, combined with various environmental factors including an improving economy and the waning of the crack epidemic, succeeded. Since 1988, crime has dropped precipitously across the country.
America’s streets are undoubtedly far safer today than when officer Byrne was murdered. So much so, that there is robust debate about how best to move the criminal justice system forward.
Should we be employing the same tactics used at the height of the crime wave? Or should we focus efforts—and dollars—on modern data-driven approaches and away from incarceration?
With 68 million Americans ensnared in at least some part of the $80 billion criminal justice system—many of them not hardened criminals like Mason (now serving a life sentence), but instead low-level drug offenders—it’s time to address the growth of mass incarceration in the United States.
The Byrne JAG program offers one of the best opportunities to align law enforcement tactics to the twin 21st-century criminal justice goals of reducing crime and unnecessary incarceration.
Now the largest federal grant for law enforcement, it provides vital funding to thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as prosecutors, public defenders, parole officers, and more. Unfortunately, the way the grant money – nearly $300 million in 2013 alone – is distributed no longer reflects modern policing needs and initiatives.
The Department of Justice gathers information about how JAG money is spent by asking grant recipients questions measuring the performance of funded programs. Current performance- measure questions don’t give grant recipients opportunities to report how effective their innovative, modern policing practices are at actually reducing crime. This would include, for example, community partnership programs with a proven record of improving both public safety and police-civilian relationships.
The result: such innovation is discouraged at the expense of volume-based policing that worsens the nation’s mass incarceration crisis.
A proposal from the Brennan Center suggests using the power of the purse to promote the most innovative and effective police practices nationwide by changing the way these questions measure JAG grant spending. New measures should link JAG dollars directly to specific, concrete objectives, like reducing violent crime rates.
Current measures ask questions about the total number of arrests, the number of charges filed, and the volume of drug seizures. These statistics, although important, don’t effectively measure whether a law enforcement agency has reduced crime and improved public safety. Proposed new measures are results-based: they ask about changes in the violent crime rate, the number of drug sales, and other statistics that demonstrate whether state and local programs have reduced criminal activity in their communities.
Numbers-based policing isn’t bad policy.
But it’s important that the right numbers are being used. These new performance measures communicate to law enforcement across the country that the targets they should be aiming for are those that reflect two modern criminal justice goals: reducing crime and reducing mass incarceration.
These JAG reforms would provide the opportunity for state and local police who are already using innovative crime-reduction programs to measure their progress. And it would mean other agencies nationwide will be encouraged to adopt the most successful of those approaches.
America’s criminal justice landscape has changed over the last three decades, and law enforcement practices have changed with it.
It’s time that federal policy makers adapt, too.