By Ted Gest
To many Americans, “criminal justice reform” means addressing two prominent challenges: reining in abusive police officers or cutting prison populations.
This week, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Association of State Correctional Administrators brought teams from all 50 states to Washington, D.C., to underline the fact that reform means much more than that.
In opening remarks Monday to the two-day “50-State Summit on Public Safety,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel called on fellow justice officials to abandon the “stovepipe approach” of handling issues in isolated silos of the justice system and seek cooperation with experts in other areas.
Wetzel’s remarks set the tone for the meeting, which was aimed at presenting officials in each state with a detailed analysis of their crime issues, including trends in arrests, recidivism and “behavioral health,” and help them come up with evidence-based solutions.
Summit attendees include all state prison directors, 41 state legislators, 35 state behavioral health directors, 15 police chiefs, and 12 sheriffs.
A major theme that surfaced early in the session is that issues often labelled as “criminal justice” problems, such as mental illness and addiction, can be handled just as well by public health authorities.
“Mental health needs are overwhelming the criminal justice system,” warned Fred Osher of the state government group, who presided over a panel on “Growing Crises.”
“Crime in the U.S. often is described only in terms of national trends, while in reality, the problem differs greatly among states and localities. For example, the violent crime rate nationally is much lower than it was in the 1990s, but 18 states have reported rising violence totals in recent years.”