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Law Enforcement Veteran: Locking Up Minor Drug Offenders Makes Us Less Safe


Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is part of the coalition we just heard about. He's a law enforcement veteran with over 30 years of policing experience in New York City, Newark, N.J., and now Chicago. McCarthy says locking up minor drug offenders using mandatory sentencing makes America less safe. Much of it goes back more than four decades when then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller instituted harsh prison sentences in what became known as the War on Drugs. Pointing to the high levels of gun violence in Chicago, McCarthy says the city can learn from the recent experience of New York.

GARRY MCCARTHY: When the NYPD changed the way that it was doing police work, the criminal justice system changed to support that. They implemented stricter gun penalties and at the same time repealed the Rockefeller drug laws. And the most amazing thing happened. Incarceration rates went down, gun seizures went down, and murders went down all at the same time.

MONTAGNE: When he joined us, police superintendent McCarthy said that is the formula Chicago and other jurisdictions need to follow if they want to end mass incarceration.

MCCARTHY: Quite frankly, you know, if you look at it in this fashion, we have to make a prioritization based on math. There's only so much room for people being incarcerated, and there's only so many people who really need to be incarcerated. I'm not endorsing narcotics, not even close, but what I can tell you is in the priority scale, the gun possessor, the illegal gun possessor - and I have to make sure I always say illegal gun possessor - is a gateway crime towards committing a murder. And we really have to look at it in that fashion. In the state of Illinois, illegal possession of a loaded firearm is not even considered a violent crime for sentencing purposes. I think there needs to be an entirely different way of looking at narcotics crime versus violent crime. And looking at things like diversion versus prison time for narcotics possession I don't think is that bad an idea.

MONTAGNE: Well, when you mention diversion, that gets to another aspect of this whole thing. Would any kind of reform or rethinking work if communities can't offer such things as drug counseling and, for that matter, job counseling or jobs?

MCCARTHY: I mean, obviously, those things need to be there to support what we're talking about here. And that's why I'm talking about the whole system, you know. And in law enforcement, obviously, our job is to enforce the law, right? So what laws and what impact it has on the community is obviously important. We've got a completely stovepiped system. Look back to '80s, right? We're going to be tough on crime. We're going to be - the war on narcotics, how is that working out? If it's working out well, then let's just keep doing it. But it's not. It's not working very well at all.

MONTAGNE: Wouldn't it be a reasonable thing for people to ask, well, crime is down to - at some points, historic levels, doesn't that mean that this is all working?

MCCARTHY: Is it working? If the community wants gun violence to lessen in Chicago, then we have to do something about guns and criminals who carry guns. That's - I don't know why this is such a deep concept. Because if 26 percent are incarcerated for narcotics and less than 4 percent for guns, is that system doing what we need it to do? I can point to about 160 examples this year alone of individuals who shouldn't have been on the streets to shoot somebody or be a victim of gun violence. I could point to individuals who got bonded out for a gun possession and were dead six hours later. As soon as I got to Chicago, people asked me what's different about New York and Chicago. And after I made a couple of jokes about pizza and the Yankees and the Cubs, I said the guns. The proliferation of firearms is overwhelming. You can't go on patrol in the city of Chicago and not find a gun. Something dawned on me a couple of years ago because I go out on patrol regularly with our officers here. The criminals in Chicago do not drop their firearms, and I was struck by this. I said, why don't they drop the guns? Well, it turns out that the sanction from the gang for losing the gun is greater than the sanction from the criminal justice system if we actually catch them with it. It's so frustrating, and that's why you keep hearing me talk about it because it's obvious. It's clear. I know what works. I've seen it work.

MONTAGNE: Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, thank you very much for joining us.

MCCARTHY: Always a pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.