THE BLOG

Decision Points: Police Should Engage in Local Justice System Reform to Build Trust and Strengthen Communities

08/28/2015 11:25 am ET | Updated Aug 28, 2016
John Roman via Getty Images

Building trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they serve has long been a priority for police leaders. Recently, heightened awareness of incidents of gross police misconduct, often amplified by new technologies, has helped lead to the creation of The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, led by Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, which has provided a roadmap for law enforcement agencies to self-assess and begin focusing on areas where they have opportunities to improve on their service delivery and increase their legitimacy.

Less visible is a crisis in the criminal justice system that has already impacted generations of the poor, and mostly people of color. The staggering number of low-level, nonviolent offenders and mentally ill individuals who are behind bars is negatively impacting communities across the United States. Prisons and jails are overcrowded and underfunded, a combination that can be dangerous to both the inmates and corrections officials. Many jails have more than 70 percent nonviolent offenders within their walls, a majority of whom have not been convicted of the crime they are accused of -- they simply cannot use the bail system to get out because they are indigent.

Like the multi-step roadmap provided by the president's taskforce, there is no singular solution to the crisis in local justice systems that many communities face. Only by focusing on the criminal justice system holistically can we help prevent unnecessary jail stays and reduce the problem of mass incarceration. Modern police leaders must view their role in the criminal justice system as an opportunity to build trust among the community they serve and increase their agency's legitimacy. They should carefully review how the system is linked and how well all of the parts work together. The typical criminal case trajectory is set in motion at the point at which an officer decides to make an arrest, and continues through the reentry process. To help stem the flow of people into the criminal justice system, we must ensure appropriate decision making at the point when officers are faced with whether or not to make an arrest, which is facilitated by including the option to issue citations in lieu of arrest when possible. We must also incorporate diversion options once an arrest occurs, including for mentally ill individuals and low-level drug offenders. Many law enforcement agencies around the country are already employing effective alternatives to arrest that have made a difference in jail populations -- but in far too many communities this is not yet the norm.

Although the criminal case trajectory operates in distinct stages, police leaders can and should engage at more points in the system than that of arrest. They also must train their officers on how the criminal justice system impacts their work and their relationship with the community -- their decisions and use of discretion matter. Police leaders seeking to make changes to their daily practices can look to national initiatives working to encourage and disseminate successful efforts made by local jurisdictions. The MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge is one such initiative that works to change the way America thinks about and uses jails by supporting a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions who are finding ways to safely reduce their jail populations. By shedding light on the overuse of jail and the power held by police to make changes, law enforcement leaders can help reduce unnecessary jail stays while building the trust of the communities they serve.