Efforts to end mass incarceration and address its negative consequences must begin by focusing on police work, the front end of the system, a report from the Vera Institute of Justice argues.
Funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, the report, Gatekeepers: The Role of Police in Ending Mass Incarceration (76 pages, PDF), found that in 2016, 99 percent of all police arrests in the United States — 95 percent of which were for minor offenses — resulted in jail admissions, up from 70 percent in 1994. The growth in jail admissions even as crime rates and total arrests in recent decades have declined suggests that police enforcement has become "an expressway to jail," the report's authors argue. Indeed, young adults today are 36 percent more likely to be arrested than their parents were at their age.
The study also found that overreliance on punitive enforcement — especially for low-level offenses — has profound consequences for entire communities. According to the report, just a few days in a local jail increases an individual's likelihood of being found guilty, receiving a harsher sentence, committing a crime in the future, and facing difficulty finding or keeping a job. Moreover, young people who are arrested but not convicted are more likely to live in poverty as adults than those from a similar background but with no arrest record, while frequent police stops result in a greater likelihood of trauma, which is strongly correlated with subsequent justice system involvement and incarceration. For the past fifteen years, African Americans have been arrested at twice the rate of white Americans, while police violence against civilians disproportionately affects communities of color. Defaulting to punitive enforcement also harms police officers, of whom more than sixty thousand were assaulted on the job and nearly a hundred killed in 2017 and who commit suicide at higher rates than the general population.
According to the report, factors driving the overreliance on punitive enforcement include the fact that police officers have become the default first responders in cases involving mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, and poverty — issues they are neither trained nor equipped to properly handle; that they often respond with the tool most expedient and available to them by arresting or citing people for low-level offenses; and that they are incentivized to do so by performance measures focused on the number of stops, arrests, summonses, and tickets they generate.
To shift the paradigm away from overreliance on incarceration, the report calls for a series of reforms, including identifying, promoting, and investing in alternatives to enforcement that don't involve the criminal justice system; expanding the list of offenses that don't require punitive enforcement; expanding the scope and reach of diversion programs; and creating structural incentives for police to use alternatives to punitive enforcement.
"A new model is needed: one that rebuilds trust, maintains public safety, and reserves arrest as a last resort," the report's authors conclude. "The work requires a holistic approach to investing in long-neglected communities that demands the engagement of civil society and community groups as well as professionals in policing, public health, and social services."