Rep. Val Demings (D- Fla.) spent over 27 years in law enforcement and served as the former chief of the Orlando Police Department. With criminal justice reform a key priority for the 117th Congress, Demings said throughout her experience in law enforcement, she learned that the criminal justice system wasn’t designed to solve all of society’s problems.
“I quickly realized that we could not arrest our way out of some of the long term, longstanding quality of life issues in a community,” she told NACo’s Justice and Public Safety Policy Steering Committee March 8 during the 2021 NACo Virtual Legislative Conference.
Law enforcement must work alongside county officials and others to deal with some of the quality-of-life issues, she said, emphasizing the role of schools in keeping individuals out of the justice system and the role mental health plays in law enforcement.
“We quickly realized law enforcement is not the answer to solve every problem,” Demings said.
The First Step Act, signed into law in 2018, reforms the prison system and calls for an assessment of every person and a plan of action to help them re-enter society, she explained.
“It also looks at making grants available for local and state governments so we can work together in terms of those who are migrating back into society, ‘what are their needs?’… so that when they are ready, we don't send them back to the same environment that led to their incarceration in the first place,” she said.
Demings, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, also discussed the Justice and Policing Act, renamed the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which includes national guidelines that would assist and provide law enforcement agencies with necessary tools. The legislation has been passed by the House and is waiting for a vote in the Senate.
“We want that [the Justice and Policing Act] to be a guideline and we have to work together with our state and local communities to get it right,” she said.
Kristen Mahoney, U.S. Department of Justice acting director for the Bureau of Justice Assistance, also discussed a variety of justice-related funding opportunities for counties including:
The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration program to improve resources and outcomes for individuals with mental illness or co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders
The Body Worn Camera Program to provide the equipment for small and rural law enforcement agencies
The Stop School Violence Program that provides cities, county governments, tribal governments up to $1 million to help secure schools
The Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program that works within a community and with law enforcement to identify a high crime neighborhood and address physical and criminal conditions
The National Training and Technical Assistance Center, no-cost assistance that can help counties develop and implement criminal justice-related strategies
Steering committee members also heard from Tod Wells, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deputy division director who explained that the agency is currently administering aid for 57 major disasters and 101 emergency declarations for COVID-19.
Wells said FEMA’s Public Assistance Program provides financial assistance in the form of grants to state, local, tribal and territorial governments for the costs of responding and recovering from major disasters and emergencies, such as the pandemic.
FEMA Public Assistance has awarded $15.8 billion to state and local governments across the country and has over 27,000 applications for public assistance.
The agency is currently focusing on supporting the vaccination effort and has worked with states to establish mass vaccination sites and grant assistance to state and county governments to support the costs of supporting these locations.