In June 2020, amid widespread protests against systemic police brutality and misconduct against Black Americans, elected officials and the public began to seriously reconsider the role of law enforcement in U.S. society. For years, grassroots campaigns and local advocates have called for an approach to public safety that does not rely solely—or even primarily—on the police. Now, the push from activists to shrink the role of policing and invest in social services and community-based strategies is gaining national attention.
Reducing the role of policing and the criminal justice system as a whole is not a radical concept and is based on the widely acknowledged idea that the justice system has taken on an outsize role in society.1 For too long, American communities have allowed—and in many ways mandated—that the criminal justice system serve as the de facto response to a broad swath of social issues, from behavioral health crises to substance misuse to school discipline. Police officers are expected to address situations that they are neither trained nor equipped to handle, which can significantly exacerbate harm for civilians. In establishing a commission on law enforcement in January 2020, even Attorney General William Barr acknowledged this point, saying, “[O]ur officers must confront a wave of social problems, such as homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness – problems that demand solutions beyond their authority and expertise.”2
The movement to shrink the role of policing and shift public safety responsibilities to other government and community institutions has similarities to a multistate initiative to divest from prisons that has attracted significant bipartisan support. Over the past decade, 35 states have participated in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) and signed up to reduce correctional populations and budgets and reinvest in other public safety solutions.3 JRI has earned praise from leaders across the ideological spectrum. Among JRI’s champions are Democratic Govs. Jay Inslee of Washington4 and Kate Brown of Oregon,5 Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, and former Republican Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia6 and Rick Perry of Texas.