Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

By Julia Edwards

(Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s push for sentencing reforms that would decrease the number of Americans imprisoned – a key focus of his remaining time in office – has won support from an unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives that includes civil rights groups, tea party Republicans and Koch Industries.

But the effort is running into opposition from a crucial constituency: the law-and-order lobby that represents American police.

Law enforcement groups have stepped up their efforts against proposals circulating in Congress to roll back tough mandatory sentences for drug crimes and focus more resources on reducing recidivism and alternatives to incarceration.

The opposition represents a personal and political challenge to Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime ally of law enforcement, who has been tasked by the White House with winning over skeptical cops even as he weighs whether to enter the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Law enforcement will always be the bigfoot in the conversation,” said Jesslyn McCurdy, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports sentencing reform. “If they are not on board with any deal, it would be difficult to get it through.”

While Obama has made the public case for criminal justice reform himself, including a first-of-its-kind visit to a federal prison outside Oklahoma City in July, he has turned to Biden and Justice Department officials to make the case to police groups, people involved in those closed-door meetings say.

A former public defender, Biden has been a long-time advocate for police funding. In 1994, he was the Senate sponsor of a landmark crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton that put more cops on the street, imposed tougher sentences and set aside nearly $10 billion for prisons and new police hires.

At a time when relations between the Obama White House and police have been strained by a series of deadly altercations between officers and unarmed black men, including the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Biden has been a voice of solidarity with the beat cop.

In an essay published in April, and then in a breakfast meeting at the White House with police representatives in May, Biden has made the case for increased federal funding for policing as part of a more sweeping prison reform effort.

But, in what amounts to a rebuff of Biden’s outreach, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the oldest U.S. law enforcement lobby, has come out against any move to lower mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

Biden continues to express optimism. “The Vice President has been asked to help lead reform efforts and use his unique standing with the law enforcement community to find consensus on a path forward,” his office said in a statement.

Police advocates say the White House’s push to reduce the prison population would risk a spike in drug-related crime and strain many local departments at a time when they face increased scrutiny, simmering tensions with the communities they serve and reduced federal funding.

State and local police departments are funded by local taxes, but the amount of federal funding to support hiring has plunged since the late 1990s.

In 1998, the Justice Department sent $1.4 billion to police through a grant program known as COPS. By 2014 that had dropped to $127 million, prompting hiring freezes or layoffs in departments across the United States in recent years.

In private meetings with police groups, the Justice Department has promised to back legislation that would allocate at least some of any savings from prison reform to policing, two officials said.

But so far, the bipartisan Senate bill the White House is strongly supporting, the Smarter Sentencing Act, makes no guarantees of funding for police.

A bill recently introduced in the House, the SAFE Justice Act, would specifically allocate funding for things such as body armor and law enforcement pensions. But the White House is still considering whether it will support that bill, introduced by Representatives James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Robert Scott, a Virginia Democrat.


It is not clear, however, whether even a bill that tied prison reforms to increased police funding would win law enforcement support.

Some groups, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, oppose lowering sentences on principle. Others, such as the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police organization, has expressed skepticism about sentencing reform, but has said it would be willing to consider changes that redirected savings from any reform to state and local law enforcement agencies if the money was approved by Congress.

“The White House and Justice Departments can hold out a carrot to law enforcement saying, ‘We can save all this money and give it out in state and local grants.’ But no president or attorney general can make that promise. It’s up to Congress,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

A breakfast meeting with Biden and law enforcement groups at the White House in May went “as smooth as sandpaper,” said Jonathan Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

In the meeting, Biden said he would do everything he could to bring more resources to police but also made the case that it was time to reexamine the U.S. incarceration rate, the highest in the world, participants said.

Adler said Biden’s support for reduced sentences for prisoners serving time for drug crimes had cost him support. “The White House is not really assessing the wider damage these people cause,” said Adler, whose group was one of at least six police groups invited to meetings at the White House.

Conservative proponents of reform, including Charles and David Koch, the billionaire backers of conservative causes, point to the more than $80 billion the United States spends on prisons annually as unsustainable. Among Republican presidential candidates, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have both urged easing mandatory minimum sentences.

Since the early 1970s, the number of Americans in prisons has increased seven-fold. More than 2.2 million people, including a disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons.

Some law enforcement groups have expressed support for sentencing reform, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the American Correctional Association, which represents workers in the prison system.

(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Sue Horton)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks prior to the kickoff of the Allegheny County Labor Day Parade in Pittsburgh, PA September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk   

  • RED

    No real surprises here, fascists never voluntarily give up their power. The blue thugs just need to get the message that their reign of terror is gonna end one way or another. They’ve murdered, assaulted, & imprisoned this country’s citizens for far too long. And we are paying the price in broken homes, record levels of poverty, and real crime being ignored. Of course the blue thugs are not the only ones responsible for creating the largest prison population in the history of Earth, there are other scumbags involved as well. It’s just staggering to me that Americans can call our country the “land of the free” when we are the most imprisoned nation on Earth. Makes me wonder what they think a police state looks like? No matter how you look at it something is wrong with the system. Either we are locking up people for things that shouldn’t be crimes, personally that’s what I think. Or if you’re an ignorant moron with the Con sickness who says things like “don’t do the crime…”, then use your feeble mind to ask yourself why does the American system create so many people who are criminals? So, either we have justice system that is broken or we have an entire society that is broken and turns out more criminals than any other nation.

    • Lee Johnson

      Cops like to nickel and dime us to death. Little crimes that costs us a months wages. You bitch and complain but its not worth the effort to stand up against them because they will overwhelm you. Once I was stopped by three different cops in five miles.

  • Jim_Klimaski

    Drug laws came into being to provide work for all he law enforcement agents who were about to lose their jobs with the repeal of Prohibition. They form the bedrock for police and corrections officers continued employment. The sheriffs like the forfeiture laws that accompany drug crime, since they are a source of substantial unaccountable revenue for them.

    • Bob Eddy

      just as important, they provide a reliable income stream and labor source for our privatized (or should that be profitized) prison system.

  • Joseph Kelsall

    Cops are not legislators. so they should do their job or quit.

    • Lee Johnson

      are you kidding the legislate whether you go to court or not. And the judges believe them over us.

  • Bob Eddy

    But another indication of the fact that our country’s law enforcement see themselves as an occupying force and not a part of us. Not here to protect and serve us, but to rule over us. I like to think that most cops are good cops, but that thought is becoming harder and harder to justify as almost always when video evidence is uncovered, we find the official story was a lie and no “good cop” ever refuted it. When an unarmed person dies at the hands of law enforcment and the conclusion is that “proper procedure was followed,” and no one questions that “proper procedure.”

    • Lee Johnson

      How does a man without a gun threaten a man with a gun. How comes they don’t use the taser. That is what they have it for. I once was confronted by a man with a pool cue in his hand and I had a gun. He decided that it wasn’t a fair fight.

      • Bob Eddy

        Exactly. A few years ago in Long Beach a homeless 60 year old woman with a broom was deemed an imminent threat by three police officers and she was shot. Her side of the story is……well, we’ll never know will we? What we do know is that “proper procedure was followed.” Seems to me we might need to review that “proper procedure!”

    • Lee Johnson

      Is seems that if you shoot some one you better kill them then they can’t complain. Cops scare the crap out of me.

      • Bob Eddy

        Cops generally don’t scare me, but I realize that is largely because I have a protective layer of whiteness on my skin!

        • Lee Johnson

          I’m white too. But I was told that I look like I am agitated and that if I didn’t settle down he was going have to taser me. I’m 69 years old. And he was going to have to taser me.

          • Bob Eddy

            You see? Without that protective cloak of white he may have well said he thought you were going for a weapon, “followed procedure,” and shot you.