Guest commentary | Public safety and the end of mass incarceration – Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Andrew Mills and five other law enforcement officials.

As executives of the police, we stand by the Constitution and our goal is to foster safe communities. Each of us is committed to ensuring that our policing practices are fair, equitable and balanced. Now we are tempering our public safety planning by understanding the desire to reduce mass incarceration. We understand the need to reduce incarceration rates, especially in communities of color; however, we must do it in a way that does not reward criminal behavior.

To become more just, it is essential to ensure the end of over-imprisonment. The United States has the highest prison population in the industrialized world with 655 prisoners per 100,000 population. Of these, according to the Bureau of Prisons, 38% are black males. The number of people incarcerated rose from 453,000 in 1978 to over 2.2 million in 2016. We don’t think Americans are inherently worse than other modern countries, nor five times worse than in 1978.

To address the high levels of incarceration, Assembly Bill 109, known as the Prison Realignment, was enacted in 2011. AB109 released 28,000 prisoners. According to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the first eight months of realignment also saw a 41% reduction in new prison admissions. The state provided realignment savings to local governments to house or supervise those released. The funding was well below the amount needed to be effective. Despite the fears of many, crime did not initially increase.

Next come Proposals 47 and 57. Certain crimes, some serious, have been reduced to avoid prison sentences. Those sentenced to prison, some even for three strikes, could be released early into the community. These proposals also reduced the level of post-release supervision known as parole. The two-year re-arrest rate is over 70%. In Santa Cruz, Proposition 47 was adopted with a 78% margin. Voters also overwhelmingly rejected proposals to repeal these provisions. The message was crystal clear: end mass incarceration.

The State of California will soon release 76,000 more people from prisons in our communities. We are seeing an increase in violent crime nationwide and in California. While it is too early to say whether current trends will persist for the long term, it is of great concern.

Conversely, many residents are fed up with petty crime. Residents don’t want to be begged for money at an intersection or to see someone push a shopping cart. They tire of the harmful effects of social problems such as homelessness, addiction and mental illness. From Davenport to Watsonville, the large community of Santa Cruz is telling police they want more rigorous enforcement of quality of life crimes. We frequently hear, “If you are tough on crime, they will leave.” Others want criminals to fear the police and go to jail.

Courts are severely overloaded due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sheriff’s Office is the county’s largest provider of mental health housing. It is estimated that 85% of the US prison population suffers from an addiction disorder. The state refuses to accommodate what was traditionally its responsibility to the detriment of the consumption of local prison space. Santa Cruz lacks beds and mental health and drug addiction services, forcing police to provide these services around the clock. We lack the resources and skills to help people in crisis.

We hear the frustration in our communities about not taking people to jail. This desire to increase incarceration and intimidate people is in direct conflict with the wishes of voters and the goal of police reform. This fierce ideological struggle places the police in a difficult and untenable position. The electorate cannot have it both ways.

The police are under constant surveillance. After the murder of George Floyd, millions of people demonstrated to demand police reform. As police executives, we agree that change is essential. We recognize that effective reform goes far beyond policing and involves courts, probation, parole and penal institutions.

All components of the criminal justice system must play their part in reforming justice and improving the quality of life here in Santa Cruz. The police will rise to the challenge of reform and ensure that we are fair, equitable and balanced; however, all government sectors must be in sync lest we fail.

As parents, we guide children through positive interaction and sometimes discipline. Empty warnings and veiled threats embolden aberrant behavior.

If Santa Cruz wants people to be incarcerated for minor offenses, the police have the capacity; the rest of the system does not. Society cannot expect to release thousands of criminal offenders without believing that crime will not increase in our community. Warning: Mass incarceration comes at an enormous cost in time, treasures and tensions.

Each of us should understand these problems and find effective solutions. Innovation begins with an open, honest and civil debate on the best way forward for reform and increased public safety. We are committed to dialogue because Santa Cruz County deserves to be protected in the right way.

This comment was signed by Santa Cruz Police Chief Andrew Mills, Santa Cruz Deputy Chief Bernie Escalante, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart, Capitola Police Chief Terry Mc Manus, Chief Constable of Scotts Valley Stephen Walpole and Watsonville Police Chief David Honda.

About Rhonda Lee

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