Editorial by Edward L. Stanton III on September 22, 2013
Last month, I had the privilege of addressing a large and diverse crowd at Jackson’s first Community Anti-Crime Summit. The summit was organized by a coalition of ministers who want to reduce violence, unemployment, crime, and drugs in communities all over West Tennessee.
I certainly share these goals, and I appreciated the opportunity to share my thoughts on reducing crime with the many community leaders who attended the summit. I also learned a great deal from the members of the public who expressed their concerns and on-the-ground insight to me.
The summit was especially timely, as only a week before the event, U.S. Attorney General Holder announced the Justice Department’s “Smart on Crime” initiative. This visionary effort provides a measured approach to modernizing the criminal justice system. It also offers a sensible alternative to the “one-size-fits-all” approach to criminal prosecutions that has proven to be flawed and ineffective.
The Smart on Crime initiative encompasses a number of core objectives, including: (1) focusing on the most serious criminal cases that implicate substantial federal interests; (2) reforming sentencing laws and policies; (3) pursuing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders; (4) improving reentry efforts; and (5) protecting the most vulnerable members of our communities.
I am pleased that in West Tennessee, we already have a head start on implementing strategies that further these objectives. For example, our office has worked with the U.S. District Court to launch a federal reentry and drug court program. We will continue to seek ways to reduce barriers to reentry for former inmates and eliminate the “revolving door” of recidivism, which is both expensive to the taxpayer and disruptive to families and our communities.
We have also emphasized the use of diversion as an alternative to incarceration, when warranted for non-violent offenders. Imprisonment is simply not the answer in every criminal case, especially when federal prisons are operating at 40 percent above capacity (and at great public expense). Across the nation, states have been shifting resources away from prison construction in favor of treatment and supervision. It is time to apply these lessons learned from the states at the federal level.
To enforce the laws more fairly and in a more cost-effective way, our prosecutors are taking a hard look at each case to determine what the best course of action may be. For instance, pursuant to the Attorney General’s new charging policy for drug cases, we will be able to reserve the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, and violent drug traffickers, while seeking smarter and less draconian sentences for low-level, non-violent offenders.
Along these lines, we continue to work with our law enforcement partners to ensure that our scarce resources are devoted to going after the “worst of the worst.” We will continue to protect citizens from violent crime, not to mention national security threats and financial fraud. But by developing and implementing district-specific guidelines for determining when prosecution under federal law is appropriate, we can focus resources on the most significant cases (and criminals), as opposed to a non-tailored, less effective approach.
Again, we are already doing this type of careful case-by-case consideration, and we are thinking creatively about how to target our resources where they can be most effective. To protect the most vulnerable among us, I created a dedicated civil rights unit in our office in 2011. Their diligent efforts have resulted in successful prosecutions of sex traffickers, corrupt public officials, and hate crimes. One example of their work was the indictment of Jackson resident Shawn Baker in May 2013 for defacing a Torah being used by students and faculty of the Margolin Hebrew Academy at the Doubletree Hotel in Jackson.
We also have a nationally recognized Project Safe Childhood program, which fights the very real threat of child sexual exploitation. Through these and other targeted programs – each of which involves careful coordination with law enforcement – we have been able to concentrate our resources on the unique criminal threats that arise in West Tennessee. The Smart on Crime initiative will refine and extend these successful efforts.
I want to be clear: our office, and our law enforcement partners, will not let up. Whether in the inner cities or rural areas of West Tennessee, we will continue our relentless pursuit of those who commit acts of terror, criminals threatening our neighborhoods through senseless acts of violence, those who commit fraud or financial crimes, and those who prey upon vulnerable victims.
Last month’s roundup of drug dealers peddling “spice” and other synthetic drugs to our young people underscores our ongoing commitment to make our communities safer.
But while we will never stop being tough on crime, we can also be smarter on crime. Prioritizing prosecutions and “surging” resources to the most critical cases will allow us to move away from the system of mass incarceration that has done little to make us more secure.
We also can’t do it alone. Civic organizations, churches, non-profit groups, and public agencies all have a role to play, especially in reentry efforts. The community members and public officials that I met in Jackson last month, who are on the front lines of the fight on crime, know that we need to be more innovative and forward-thinking in our efforts. The Smart on Crime initiative is a specific, comprehensive action plan, and I will move expeditiously to implement it in West Tennessee.
In the end, getting Smart on Crime will benefit everyone involved: prosecutors, victims, law enforcement officials, taxpayers, and defendants who deserve individualized treatment by the criminal justice system. As Attorney General Holder said last month: “By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime ‘hot spots,’ and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness – we can become both smarter and tougher on crime.”
Edward L. Stanton III is U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.