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Mayors Are Joining Together to Get Smart on Crime

February 13, 2018
Betsy Pearl
Betsy Pearl
Campaign Manager for Criminal Justice, Center for American Progress

This month, mayors from 12 cities partnered with Center for American Progress to launch Mayors for Smart on Crime, a national initiative promoting fair, just and proportional, and comprehensive approaches to public safety and criminal justice that are driven by evidence and data. With support from the Safety and Justice Challenge, Mayors for Smart on Crime brings together a diverse group of leaders from cities of different sizes and regions, united by their commitment to building safer, fairer communities.

Mayors are uniquely positioned to effect positive change and give voice to the movement against outdated and ineffective “law and order” policies. Traditionally, the responsibility for enhancing public safety has been placed solely on the shoulders of police and other enforcement agencies. This led to an unnecessary growth of the number of people in our jails and prisons. Today, we understand that public safety is not limited only to the enforcement tool in the toolbox. It requires partnerships with members of the community, advocates, social service agencies, and public health entities, just to name a few. This results in both safe communities and an equitable and right-sized justice system.

Across the country, mayors are positioned to lead these multi-faceted approaches and bring comprehensive solutions to bear. In Dayton, Ohio, for example, Mayor Nan Whaley is leading the way to combat the impact of opioid addiction. Whaley was one of the first mayors in Ohio to declare a state of emergency in response to the opioid epidemic, a move that opened up additional resources to support the city’s response. “The declaration of emergency allowed us to do what we call harm reduction,” Whaley said. The city equipped all first responders with the overdose reversal drug Naloxone, and launched a needle-exchange program at three sites across the city. Through needle exchanges, individuals affected by addiction can swap used needles for clean ones, helping to curb the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.  Mayor Whaley also views the program as an opportunity to build connections with impacted communities.  “[The needle-exchange program is] an opportunity for us to open the door so we have a relationship—where if someone feels they have nowhere else to turn [then] they have this place,” she explained. “That way, when they’re ready for treatment, we can get them into treatment very quickly.”

Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, Colorado is another vocal advocate for smart on crime approaches. His city has embodied these principles with recent sentencing reforms. Previously, all violations of city ordinances carried a maximum sentence of one year in jail, regardless of the severity of the offense. That meant petty infractions, such as public urination, were subject to the same punishment as assault, domestic violence, and other serious crimes. In May 2017, the Denver City Council unanimously approved a comprehensive overhaul of sentencing laws, which established proportional responses to city-level offenses. Under the new structure, the most serious crimes are still punishable by a maximum of 365 days in jail. But for minor violations, the maximum sentence has been reduced to 60 days. “With this ordinance, we will ensure punishment fits the severity of the offense,” Hancock said.

These reforms represent a major step towards protecting all of Denver’s residents, including immigrants, refugees, and those experiencing homelessness. Notably, federal law stipulates that ICE must be notified whenever an immigrant is convicted of a crime that carries a maximum sentence of one year or more, even if the individual receives a lesser sentence. Under the new sentencing structure, less serious offenses will no longer trigger ICE notification – and by preserving the 365-day maximum for violent crimes, the sentencing structure will continue to hold serious offenders accountable.  Mayor Hancock called the reforms a “critical step” towards keeping families intact and “ensuring low level offenses, like park curfew, are not a deportation tool.”

Mayors for Smart on Crime will give mayors the opportunity to share strategies and benefit from the collective knowledge of their peers. Reflecting on her experiences in Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson emphasized the importance of comprehensive public safety approaches. “If we continue to use law enforcement-centered solutions, we will get the same mixed results,” she explained, “and we will continue to lose valuable human potential.”

Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia reinforced this principle, explaining that incarceration “doesn’t solve the problem.” Instead, Kenney takes a holistic view of crime prevention efforts, focused on addressing the root causes of criminal involvement. “When you see wasted potential and wasted talent, and you recognize that if that person had a different experience in life, and a different educational experience and a different opportunity for work experience, that they would be contributing much more than they are now,” he says. “There are no such thing as throw away people. Everyone has a chance to redeem themselves.”

Learn more about Mayors for Smart on Crime and see full list of participating mayors.