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Policing Reform Essential to Address Mass Incarceration

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Reforming policing practices is essential to addressing mass incarceration in the U.S., according to a Vera Institute of Justice report published on Aug. 12.

Beginning in the late 1990s, there was a significant increase in the number of adults with an arrest record by age 23.

By 2008, around 33% of all young adults (and almost 50% of black young adults) had been arrested – representing a 36% increase in likelihood over their parents’ generation.

Total arrests have historically always been higher than total jail admissions – until 2016 when they were almost identical.

There were 70 jail admissions per 100 arrests in 1994, a figure that rose to 99 out of 100 by 2016.

“While not all jail admissions stem from arrests – people suspected of violations of probation or parole can end up in jail too, for example – the growth in admissions as crime and arrest rates have fallen to lows not experienced since 1970 and 1980, respectively, strongly suggests that between then and now, police enforcement has become an expressway to jail,” the report said.

Such trends are the result, in part, from an increasing number of incidents to which police are responding “that might not constitute true public safety emergencies” and for which “they are neither trained nor equipped to properly handle.”

This includes homelessness, as well as mental health and substance abuse issues, which the report suggested are best handled through means other than arrest, citation, incarceration or combination of the three.

A growing number of police departments are emphasizing alternatives to arrest – giving a warning, issuing a citation, redirecting the case to another entity, such as fire or emergency medical personnel, referring the person to community-based treatment or letting the person go without any action.

A 2016 survey found that 39% of larger police departments – those with 500 or more officers – had such diversion programs in place designed for low-risk individuals encountered by police, but that number drops to 25% of departments with 50 or fewer officers and 10% of departments with 10 or fewer officers.

Despite this trend, around 80% of annual arrests are for low-level offenses, which suggest “that policing practices currently tend toward punitive approaches … in ways that are often not necessary to achieve public safety.”

In 2017, continuing a decades-long trend, less than 5% of arrests were for serious violent crimes.

Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, with persons of color twice as likely as whites to be arrested.

Blacks accounted for 27% of all arrests in 2016 (while representing only 13% of the total population), were 2.39 times as likely to be arrested on drug abuse violations as whites in 2014 (despite research indicating drug usage at the same rates), and were three times as likely as whites to be arrested for disorderly conduct from 1980 through 2014.

While some data points indicate an increased use of citation instead of arrest, the report noted this can ultimately lead to an arrest if the person has unaddressed needs (mental illness or substance abuse, for example) that prevent them from attending a required court date for their citation.

“To chart a new course in American policing, police should use arrest sparingly, intentionally and transparently,” the report said, while emphasizing that “the problems that have led to mass enforcement are, to some extent, the result of societal issues that have been laid at the feet of police but are not theirs alone to solve.”

The full report is available here. A summary fact sheet is available here.