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Why some in law enforcement want to bring down mass incarceration

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Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) Inmates walk down the long hallway on their way out to the recreation yard on Sept. 4, 2009. Due to jail overcrowding, the inmates got only 4 hours of recreation a week at the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, California.

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More than 130 top law enforcement officials are mobilizing to join an increasingly popular call to cut down on the nation’s incarceration rates and find another solution to lowering crime.

The group, called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, has brought together a broad coalition of police chiefs, prosecutors, and sheriffs, according to The New York Times. It will make its formal debut in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.

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This new coalition of police and prosecutors is looking to reduce the number of criminal laws, as well as end mandatory minimum prison sentences. While it joins the calls of lawmakers across the country, the organization also “represents an abrupt public shift in philosophy for dozens of law enforcement officials who have sustained careers based upon tough-on-crime strategies,” reports the Times.

Just a few years ago, criminologists were crediting America's drop in crime to high incarceration rates. But today, a growing number of experts are playing a different tune.

“Our experience has been, and in some ways it's counter-intuitive, that you really can reduce crime and incarceration at the same time,” Ronal Serpas, committee co-chair and former New Orleans police chief, told National Public Radio.

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton told the Times that city law enforcement agencies “were well ahead of the curve in understanding that you can’t arrest your way out of the problem.”

In some ways, the group is making official what a number of police departments are already doing to help rebuild public trust, which currently sits at its lowest level in decades.

Back in his hometown earlier this year, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy praised what he said were record low crime rates despite a decline in arrests, according to The Chicago Tribune.

“We've made 17,000 less arrests over the last two years," Supt. McCarthy, who will also serve as a committee co-chairman, said in May. “I told you mass incarceration is a huge issue in the community and rightfully so. But at the end of the day, it's not about arresting everybody. It's not about filling up the jails. It's about arresting the right person at the right place [for] the right reason at the right time.”

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Prosecutors are also hopping on board. “This is a pivotal moment for criminal justice in America,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance wrote in an op-ed for The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “How do we promote safety at the same time as fairness? Today we are announcing the launch of a national prosecutorial think tank designed to answer that very question.”

On Thursday, members of the group will greet perhaps the nation’s most famous proponent of criminal justice reform: President Obama.  

Mr. Obama will spend the coming weeks traveling the United States to lobby for the reduction of incarceration rates, reports The Associated Press. His administration is considering rewarding prisoners with shorter sentences on the condition that they complete certain programs.

In addition to meeting with the police chiefs, the president will address more than 14,000 public safety officials in the world’s largest such gathering next Tuesday, the Tribune reports.