By Ted Gest
Will this Fall prove to be a pivotal one for criminal justice in the United States, or just another flurry of talk with little decisive action?
Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced its most significant bill in years on federal crime, one that could roll back many categories of mandatory sentences that have helped pack prisons and strain the Justice Department's budget.
A few hours later, President Barack Obama welcomed to the White House a new group of police chiefs and prosecutors who have vowed to support steps that would reduce mass incarceration. Next week, as part of a national tour on justice issues, the President will address the largest law enforcement organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
His speech promises to be far different from a presidential address exactly 21 years ago this month to the same group. At that time, President Bill Clinton sought the police chiefs' support for a massive federal crime bill that would bring more police officers, prison cells, "three strikes and you're out" penalties, and capital punishment.
Now, crime rates are much lower, violence isn't as big a political issue as it was in the early 1990s, Washington has less money to spend, and Clinton has expressed regret for parts of the law he championed.
Based on what Obama said yesterday and in his weekly address last weekend, the first chief executive to visit federal prisoners will ask the police chiefs for a more balanced approach that pays as much attention to the lives of those who end up behind bars as the nation has to the process of locking them up.
He'll likely get a good reception when he meets the chiefs in his home town of Chicago, but how far will they really go to support his ideas?
The city's Police Commissioner, Garry McCarthy, will enthusiastically back Obama. McCarthy is co-chair of the new Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration. "Good crime control policy does not involve arresting and imprisoning masses of people," McCarthy said this week.
On Wednesday, he declared that the new movement among law enforcers doesn't spell the end of "broken windows" policing, which calls for officers to address many minor offenses, but rather to concentrate on "locking up the right people for the right reasons."
Yet the IACP, although it sent a representative to take part in the new organization's initial meetings, has yet to endorse its principles, a spokesperson told The Crime Report.
Prosecutors, many of them elected on get-tough-on-crime platforms, have been blamed for many of the policies that have led to mass incarceration. Their main organization, the National District Attorneys Association, also took part in Law Enforcement Leaders' meetings this week but has not formally backed the new organization either.
Many district attorneys apparently aren't comfortable calling for the end of mandatory minimum sentences, believing they are appropriate for many "career criminals."
One of the new organization's main principles is that police and prosecutors "should divert people with mental health and drug addiction issues away from arrest, prosecution and imprisonment and instead into proper treatment."
It sounds good but how should the principle be applied in specific cases?
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton was supposed to be a headliner at this week's criminal justice events in Washington, D.C., surrounding the new organization.
He couldn't make it because one of his officers was killed this week, allegedly by a man with a long rap sheet. Bratton and his boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, denounced a judge for having released the suspect to one of the diversion programs that the new Law Enforcement Leaders group favors.
That is one of the big challenges that faces criminal justice reformers now. Violent crime totals in many big cities are rising, not to the levels that faced Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but enough to give some pause about how far current proposals to change the system should go.
This week, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the federal sentencing bill, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute in New York City said that, "With pedestrian stops, criminal summons, and arrests falling precipitously in urban areas, criminals are becoming emboldened. While I do not think that the current crime increase is a result of previous changes in federal sentencing policy, it behooves the government to tread cautiously in making further changes."
Her views may have more resonance in the more conservative House of Representatives. There, departing speaker John Boehner favored some kind of justice reform, but it's not clear in the current turmoil over his successor where the crime issue will end up.
Advocates contend that just the fact that issues like "overcriminalization" and long prison sentences are being talked about seriously at high levels of government is promising.
And it's indisputable that many states have adjusted their punishment systems and improved their prisons, whether motivated by economic issues, lawsuits, or research showing what works in preventing crime.
How legislative bodies nationwide, as well as police chiefs, prosecutors and other key actors in the justice system, act in the coming election year may tell the story of whether the U.S. will make significant changes in criminal justice or will suffice with a few token "reforms."
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes your comments.