TOPICS > Nation > Broken Justice

Police, prosecutors call for fewer arrests of nonviolent offenders

October 21, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
More than 130 law enforcement officials from around the country have gathered in Washington to push for reform. Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Benjamin David, district attorney from New Hanover and Pender Counties in North Carolina, talk with Judy Woodruff about whether there are better strategies for dealing with non-violent offenders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first to the latest in our Broken Justice series.

We have done a number of stories about calls for reform from voices across the spectrum. Tonight, we hear a new call from top law enforcement officials themselves.

Today, more than 130 of them, including police chiefs and prosecutors, came to Washington to push for changes to incarceration and policing practices. One of the key reforms they want to see, reducing or eliminating prison time for nonviolent offenses and some drug possession charges.

Garry McCarthy is the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. He’s co-chair of this coalition. And Benjamin David is the district attorney for New Hanover and Pender Counties in Eastern North Carolina.

And welcome to both of you.

Chicago Police Superintendent: Thanks for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Superintendent McCarthy, let me start with you.

You said today — among other things, you said, we incarcerate the wrong people. We measure the wrong things when it comes to the criminal justice system. What are you referring to?

GARRY MCCARTHY: I’m referring to the fact that the violent offenders, repeat offenders are too frequently on our streets causing problems. About two months ago, I came down to D.C. again with about 30 different jurisdictions across the country that all have increases in violent crime this year.

And the one commonality that we had, repeat offenders over and over again. So, there are some people who, I’m sorry, do not deserve to be out in our society. They’re dangerous. There are other people that can actually be reformed.

And what we find over and over again is the low-level narcotics offender is sometimes incarcerated at a greater rate than the violent criminal. In Cook County — in Chicago, which is in Cook County, 28 percent of the inmates who are incarcerated in Cook County Jail are there for narcotics-related offenses, yet less than 4 percent are there for gun possession.

And these are folks with violent criminal histories. That’s causing a danger in our streets.

So, District Attorney David, what is an example of an offense that — we just heard it has to do with narcotics, for example. So, if somebody is carrying around a small amount of heroin or cocaine, they shouldn’t be arrested? What should happen to them?

BENJAMIN DAVID, District Attorney, New Hanover and Pender Counties, North Carolina: No, they should be arrested, but to be clear, justice reinvestment in North Carolina, where I serve as the district attorney, we make it mandatory that they are going to receive probation for a drug possession case, and to have the opportunity for a deferred prosecution.

We went one step further and also made it where you could expunge the nonviolent criminal history of a felon or someone with a misdemeanor for that one-time offense, so that they could stay eligible for things like public housing, student loans, military service, and they don’t have that scarlet letter on them when they are trying to get a job, because that is really what we are talking about.

The second that we put them into the system, they’re on a different statistical path.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying, in effect, Superintendent McCarthy, that somebody who is out there who has — say they have an open container of alcohol or, as you know, we mentioned carrying around drugs, you are assuming that that is not on the pathway to committing more violent offenses?

GARRY MCCARTHY: Well, you know, I’m not going to make that leap.

But what I can tell you is that there are people who have violent criminal histories that need to be incarcerated. And those individuals who don’t may not be — may not need to be incarcerated. Different prosecution, different method of dealing with it. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to make the arrest.

But what happens once that arrest is made, when that individual goes into the system? Can they get deferred from prosecution into drug treatment programs or something along those lines? There is a difference between carrying a gun, an illegal gun, and getting caught with some heroin, a total difference there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I understand that. But I still want to just clarify this. So, are you saying, both of you saying, District Attorney David, that, for example, that all those years of arguing just say no, that drugs — stay away from drugs, that they are a pathway to getting addicted to heroin, that all those messages were the wrong messages?

BENJAMIN DAVID: No, I don’t say that at all. I still say stay away from drugs. It brings the wolf to the door. It feeds all the violence in our communities right now. It’s the very gasoline for the engine of crime.

What we are really saying is that we need to have the right people in custody. And mentally ill drug addicts are not who we want to clog up the prisons and the jails with. It is a scarce resource when are you talking about those beds. And we want to put the career and violent criminals in those places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this is going to be an expensive, more expensive approach, isn’t it, Superintendent McCarthy? You are going to require people with experience in handling people with drug addiction, giving people therapy.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re going to require — it’s going to require more people, more man-hours, woman-hours to deal with this.

GARRY MCCARTHY: I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so, because, if you think about it, we’re not changing the behavior of the drug-addicted individual by incarcerating them. We may change behavior of the gun carrier by incarcerating them, because he’s not addicted to the gun like the heroin user might be addicted to the heroin.

It is the wrong medicine for what ails us. If we — we want to correct the behavior, the way you correct the behavior of a drug user is to get them drug treatment, not incarcerating them. The way that you change the behavior of a bad guy who carries a gun, you put them in jail. This prevents them from committing another crime while he is in there and maybe he won’t do it again when he comes out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is involved, Mr. David, in changing the laws to make this happen, what you are describing?

BENJAMIN DAVID: Well, first of all, it is outreach efforts and understanding, first and foremost, who we are really talking about now, with the biggest victims of violent crime are also from the same high-crime neighborhoods.

And when you have a business model where 98 percent of the people we are putting in prison are getting out, and they’re not getting out better, and 66 percent of them are back in that prison cell within three years charged with new offenses, what we’re doing is not protecting the community in the way that we can.

And so what we really have to do is, when you are talking about funding, we’re going to save money by closing some prisons and not having to build other ones. That is the North Carolina experience. But we are going to use that money, reinvest it into drug treatment, into mental health reform, into having some of the things that we can do to divert these cases out of the criminal justice system.

It involves not only government, but the business community, getting people jobs, and getting schools to stop the school-to-prison pipeline we could talk about. There are so many people in a community other than law enforcement, because this is bigger than police and prosecutors can handle on their own.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one other philosophy, I guess, that has been behind us, Superintendent McCarthy, and that’s the so-called broken windows approach, going after people who have committed minor offenses because you are afraid they are going to do something worse.

Is that saying that whole approach was the wrong approach?

GARRY MCCARTHY: No, not — the same issue. It’s not that we’re not going to address those conditions. As a matter of fact, broken windows is the number one complaint at our community meetings from the people who live in the community.

They want us to address those low-level issues. The question is, how is it that we address them? If we were putting people in prison for 20 years for public consumption of alcohol, that law would change very quickly. But what we are doing is, we are putting people in prison for extended sentences for low-level amounts of narcotics.

And that just doesn’t work. You can issue somebody a ticket for drinking a beer in public vs. arresting them. You can also take that drug user and divert them into a program, instead of incarcerating them.

Superintendent Garry McCarthy from Chicago and District Attorney Ben David from North Carolina, we thank you both.


GARRY MCCARTHY: Pleasure. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We recorded that interview late this afternoon. And I also asked Superintendent McCarthy about recently published allegations of a pattern of abuse at a police detention center in Chicago. He says those allegations are false. You can watch his comments online on our Web site,