Metro

Middlesex sheriff among delegation to meet with Obama

Middlesex Country Sheriff Peter Koutoujian

Bill Brett

Middlesex Country Sheriff Peter Koutoujian

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian will meet Thursday with President Obama as part of a group of law enforcement leaders from across the nation calling for a reduction in the nation’s incarceration rate.

Koutoujian is a founding member of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a group advocating for redirection non-violent offenders, namely those addicted to drugs or suffering from mental illness, to institutions that can help them recover.

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“We can reduce incarceration while at the same time reducing crime and protecting the public,” Koutoujian said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “We don’t need to have people incarcerated for low-level, non-violent offenses... It’s not necessary, it’s not appropriate.”

Koutoujian estimates it costs $45,000-$50,000 on average to house one inmate for a single year in the United States. Decreasing the rate of incarceration of low-level and non-violent offenders would allow more resources to be allocated to detaining violent repeat offenders, he said.

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Other current members of the group, which currently has 130 members, include former Boston police commissioner William Bratton, now commissioner in New York; former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole, now the police chief in Seattle; and former Boston US attorney Donald Stern.

The group’s formation comes at a time of bipartisan concern about the levels of incarceration in the United States.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said Tuesday in a speech that the United States is a “nation that has gone mad with mass incarceration.” He said the state’s rate is less than half the national average, but still up sharply from past years. He proposed a data-driven strategy to reduce the state’s incarceration rates, the Globe reported Wednesday.

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Koutoujian said he hoped reforms would help divert vulnerable populations to places where they can recover from addiction and mental illness.

“Over 30 percent of the [Middlesex County prison] population needs mental attention. Eighty to 90 percent have alcohol and drug addiction issues,” Koutoujian said.

The Middlesex County sheriff recognized that mass incarceration has had a disproportionate effect on men of color in the United States. He said that the stigma of incarceration is “not just affecting the individuals, but the communities as well.”

In meeting with the president, Koutoujian hopes of the group of top law enforcement officials from across the nation can stir real movement to cut back incarceration nationwide.

“These are not people that are soft on crime. These are tough law enforcement officials,” Koutoujian said.

“I hope that the president will then take the leadership of this organization and use it for criminal justice reform,” he said.

Sarah Roberts can be reached at sarah.roberts@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @heysarahroberts
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