Albany County District Attorney David Soares and the nation’s top criminal justice leaders have called for mass reforms to our criminal justice system.
Soares, alongside over 130 police chiefs and district attorneys met Wednesday, Oct. 21, in Washington D.C. as the group, Law Enforcement Leaders. The leaders were hosted by President Barack Obama at the White House.
The Law Enforcement Leaders group aims to urge solutions to the country’s mass-incarceration problem, overly harsh mandatory minimums for low-level crimes and lack of protocol for dealing with mentally ill and drug-addicted criminals. Members plan to work within their departments to create police training programs for dealing with the mentally ill and work with legislators to seek an end to minimum sentences and other reforms.
“Most people believe more punishment means less crime. The more criminals we lock up, the safer we are… But we know firsthand that relying on jail and prison time is not enough. In fact, too much incarceration fails to help us,” said Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department and co-chairs the group.
“You can reduce crime as we’ve done in Albany and reduce jail time,” said Soares. “We’ve seen jail population reduce to as much as one-third over the last several years.” The beds left vacant after this have since been used for the Albany County opiate addiction treatment program, he said.
Since the War on Drugs of the 1980s, mandatory minimum sentences have been set for drug-trafficking. Initiatives now are backtracking on these laws after the decades since have shown the poor effects of mass incarceration, especially in urban communities. Some studies have shown that mandatory minimums had limited effects on declining incarceration, and in some cases can lead to increases in future crime, as a result of prison mentality and the difficulty of finding employment post-incarceration.
“Part of addressing [mass incarceration] is to address disproportionate African American and Hispanic males in prison, and how to strengthen communities where most of these arrests are coming from,” said Soares.
While the United States is at its lowest levels of crime in half a century, our country’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world. U.S. population accounts for five percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, about 1.6 million people, are in the U.S.
To Soares, Albany County had foresight on this issue before it even came into public light. In his almost three terms as district attorney, the district attorney said he has spent “most of career working with economic justice centers in urban communities.”
In June, Soares announced plans to partner with the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in the City of Albany, then Albany County. Police officers exposed to the program receive greater training in recognizing mental health issues.
Once recognized, those individuals with mental health issues will not even be brought to booking. Instead, they will be directly to treatment facilities.
“We want violent people in jail, and people who will benefit from alternative treatments to have those alternatives,” said Soares. County drug treatment facilities will also be strengthened, according to the district attorney.
The program is set to be fully operational in the City of Albany by the start of the new year and is currently in the process of developing police protocols. Soares and police have spent the past several months obtaining research as to the types of people committing low-level crimes and the rate of turnover they have in returning to county jails.
Next, Soares plans to announce details about his Felony Accountability Board in the coming months. The board will create bring “restorative justice” and expunge past crimes.
“There are people who are otherwise free of crime, but prohibited from getting a job because of a crime committed as a teenager. We cannot condemn adults, especially African Americans and Hispanics, to perpetual unemployment because of crime committed over a decade ago,” said Soares.
At the state level, as well, New York has been ahead on addressing these issues. While New York does not have mandatory minimums for low-level crimes, at the federal level, the U.S. is “still operating on very antiquated level,” said Soares.
Congress is currently seeking to pass a number of bills to scale back mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and increase therapeutic treatment of the mentally ill for nonviolent crimes.
To address the issue entirely, “It cannot just be about work done by police and prosecutors. It has to be on legislative agendas at national and local levels,” said Soares. “A lot going to happen in the not too distant future. We are at a really important moment right now. This important stage to be in.”