Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy at a City Council budget hearings two weeks ago Credit: (Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times)

Law enforcement leaders from throughout the nation are promising a kinder, gentler, more discriminating approach to policing and prosecuting. They’ve formed a group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, whose cochairs include Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy. 

“There’s only so much room for people being incarcerated, and there’s only so many people who really need to be incarcerated,” McCarthy told NPR this morning.  

McCarthy said he favored “diversion versus prison time” for straight drug possession. That’s fine and essential, but it’s not going to make much of a dent in the incarceration rate. The many stories about petty drug offenders serving lengthy sentences have given the public a mistaken impression. The petty drug offenders tend to either be sentenced to probation or to short terms. Our abhorrent incarceration rate is more due to the harsh sentences imposed on violent offenders in the 1980s and 1990s. Our prisons are stuffed because so many convicts are serving terms of 20 years or more.   

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent indictment of mass incarceration in the Atlantic—which I write about elsewhere on our site this week—makes this crucial point:  

“The changes needed to achieve an incarceration rate in line with the rest of the developed world are staggering,” Coates writes. “The popular notion that this can largely be accomplished by releasing nonviolent drug offenders is false—as of 2012, 54 percent of all inmates in state prisons had been sentenced for violent offenses. . . . One 2004 study found that the proportion of ‘unambiguously low-level drug offenders’ could be less than 6 percent in state prisons and less than 2 percent in federal ones.” 

You’d never know that from how the media has generally described the problem, or how law enforcement leaders, including McCarthy, are now talking about it. 

The truth is that significantly reducing our incarceration rate will require a more rehabilitative, less punitive approach to violent offenders, not just nonviolent ones. And much shorter sentences.

If you believe, as I do, that crime—including, especially, violent crime—is largely a predictable product of concentrated poverty, then you might also agree that shorter sentences, and more spending on rehabilitative programs in prisons, is the approach a just society should be taking—while it works much harder to fix that root cause.

The new law enforcement group lists among its priorities the reduction or elimination of mandatory minimum laws “that require overly harsh, arbitrary sentences for crimes.” That’s promising. I’d like to hear McCarthy say he supports that. Instead he’s been pressing for new mandatory minimum terms for gun crimes.

In 2006, when the United Nations voted on a resolution calling for abolition of life-without-parole terms for juveniles, the vote was 185 to 1 in favor. Guess which nation was the 1. We currently have an estimated 2,500 people serving life without parole terms for crimes they were convicted of committing when they were juveniles. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court said in Miller v. Alabama that such sentences should be “uncommon.” Some of those 2,500 convicts will be eligible for new sentencing hearings, but it’s not certain yet how many will be. When McCarthy and the new law enforcement group come out in favor of sentencing relief for convicts such as these, it’ll be clear they’re serious.