To an outsider, the idea of “getting tough” on crime may seem satisfying. But as law enforcement officials, we have a different perspective. Instead, we need to be smart on crime. Louisiana has already done this, and Congress should follow our lead.
The nation spends at least $81 billion annually on incarceration, funneling large amounts money from local, state, and federal budgets that could be used for infrastructure, education and health care. We’re not even getting what we pay for. Nearly 80 percent of those released from prison will be rearrested within just six years. Using incarceration as the reflexive response to all crime simply perpetuates a cycle of crime and recidivism.
I became a cop because I care about the safety of my community and have spent decades on the front lines of America’s fight against serious and violent crime. When I led the New Orleans Police Department, I saw how moving away from the outdated methods of fighting crime could reduce crime and protect citizens. During my more than 30 years in law enforcement, I found that the superficially “tough” strategy of locking up low-level, nonviolent offenders willy-nilly can even make crime worse. Some shoplifters emerge from prison unable to find a job and shunned by their communities, forcing them return to breaking the law out of desperation, and causing the cycle of crime — and incarceration — to repeat. If we claim to stand for public safety, we have to figure out how to break that cycle.
To do it, we need to look at the cause. Sometimes people assume the answer is to focus on improving our prisons: making them cleaner, safer, and more conducive to rehabilitation. That’s just half the solution. We cannot improve conditions without reducing overcrowding, and we cannot reduce overcrowding unless we change some of the policies that put people behind bars in the first place. Reforming sentencing policies and programs in prison not only increases the chance of rehabilitation and redemption but also increases resources for law enforcement.
We should focus our resources on the most dangerous offenders. As police officers, that’s a principle we should apply everywhere.
That is how we are approaching criminal justice reform in Louisiana. Last June, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bipartisan package of 10 Justice Reinvestment reforms into law. These bills shortened sentences for nonviolent and first-time offenders while reinvesting savings into probation, rehabilitative services, and re-entry programming inside prisons. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the state was projected to save $6.2 million in fiscal year 2017-2018 and safely reduce the prison population by 10 percent over the next 10 years.
We can take that lesson to the federal level. There, a bipartisan group led by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, are working to add careful, measured sentencing reductions to a criminal justice reform bill currently moving through Congress. President Donald Trump recently expressed support for including a fix to outdated, ineffective federal sentencing laws within the prison reform bill he is pushing Congress to pass.
I am not the only high-ranking police officer to feel that our “tough-on-crime” approach to public safety failed. As a founder and the executive director of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, I am working with 200 current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors all across the United States to push for reforms to our criminal justice systems. Now, I want to encourage our own senators in Washington to follow Louisiana’s example on sentencing and prison reform.
We come from different political backgrounds and states, but we are united in our shared belief that not only can we safely reduce unnecessary incarceration, but in doing so it will also allow more resources for law enforcement to keep crime at historic lows across the country. Louisiana is showing Washington what can be gained by comprehensive criminal justice reform that addresses both sentencing and seeks to reduce recidivism. If we are serious about the safety of the American people, Congress should swiftly move these reforms forward.
Ronal Serpas, the former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department and former chief of police of Nashville, Tennessee, is executive director of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration and a professor of criminology and justice at Loyola University New Orleans.