Among the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, one topic that frequently comes up for debate is the rather gauzy issue generally described as criminal justice reform. This subject takes a number of forms, often involving calls for decriminalization of various types of crimes and ending “mass incarceration,” which is frequently described in terms of racist policies. But at the Washington Post this week, a new voice has piped up with a “bolder” proposal to supposedly fix the criminal justice system.
Philip V. McHarris is a PhD candidate in Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University. In his WaPo op-ed, McHarriss explains how the real problem with law enforcement is that there are just too many darned police in this country. And if the Democrats really want to get serious about criminal justice reform, they need to be pushing to cut police budgets all across the nation, particularly in our larger cities, so there won’t be so many cops out there arresting people. The funds should instead be channeled toward social assistance programs designed to lift people out of poverty.
Today, the United States spends more than $100 billion dollars on policing each year. Cities often spend anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their total budgets toward policing, with some exceeding a billion dollars. There are more than 12,300 local police departments in the United States and 468,000 sworn, full-time officers with arresting power, a 34 percent increase since 1987.
And while politicians have often painted the rise in police officers as improving public safety, the truth is that the escalation of mass policing — police personnel, resources and police contact — has produced persistent harassment, arrest and soaring rates of police violence in black communities, as well as other communities of color.
While Democratic presidential candidates today push for criminal justice reform, they must recognize that their party contributed significantly to this problem in a rush to attract political support through law-and-order platforms.
There are a couple of common, liberal tropes in this column that largely fail to hold water and shouldn’t simply be ignored. The biggest one is the common perception on the left that the act of enforcing the law is racist because it has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. While a look at the raw numbers in major urban areas would tend to make you think this is true (assuming you don’t think about it for very long), the underlying facts tell a different story.
Simply saying that (primarily) black and Latino suspects are arrested and/or convicted at a higher per capita rate than white suspects in large cities ignores the reality of why certain areas have more criminal activity to begin with. Saying that the police target minorities for arrests is, in itself, just as racist as attempting to claim that black and Latino people are more likely to be criminals because of their race.
The reality is that pervasive, generational and entrenched conditions of poverty produce communities where education suffers, employment opportunities are fewer and drug and alcohol abuse issues flourish. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to a higher likelihood of criminal activity increasing. McHarriss is correct that these low-income urban centers are largely populated by minorities as a result of generations of racial inequity. But we can also find any number of more rural areas, such as we especially see in some southern states, where predominantly white communities have been gutted by the epidemic of meth production and addiction. In those areas, the same types of economic hardship, depression and criminal activity take root and most of the people who wind up in trouble with the cops are white.
The reality is that, with the exception of a relative handful of racist bad apples, the police don’t go around hunting for suspects based on their skin color or the median income of their zip code. The cops enforce the law where the law is being broken. And unfortunately, for the aforementioned reasons, that does frequently wind up being low-income communities of color in some cities with persistent gang problems.
As far as this proposed “solution” goes, what Mr. McHarris apparently fails to realize is that there have already been cities engaging in these sorts of experiments and the results have been uniformly bad. When urban police departments either cut back on their budgets and staffing or simply push the cops to do “less policing,” the results are both tragic and predictable. When Baltimore began going after their own cops following the Freddie Gray riots of 2015, violent crime and gang activity spiked and continues to increase to this day.
Administrative changes in Philadelphia following the election of their new mayor in 2016 have been following by a nearly 50% increase in homicides over the past few years. New York City has managed to avoid a major increase in its body count thus far, but various criminal justice reform efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, including the recent “bail reform” laws have led to a revolving door of arrests of repeat offenders and the local police union describing 2020 as “the year of the perp.”
And it’s not just violent crime that’s affected by these types of “reforms.” After California passed Proposition 47 in 2014, they essentially decriminalized retail theft of goods up to a value of $1,000. In the next few years that followed, they seemed to be shocked (shocked!) to find that incidents of retail theft soared. Other examples abound.
The reality is that humanity is not composed purely of saints. When presented with what appears to be an opportunity or faced with pervasive poverty and economic hardship, there will always be people (of all races) who will turn to crime. And where organized, criminal gangs take root, the problems compound quickly. While I agree with McHarris that social benefit programs designed to improve the lives of those living in poverty can and do help some people eventually escape these traps, the criminal element and the danger it poses for everyone concerned can’t simply be swept under the rug. And the answer to that problem is strong, effective law enforcement. Slashing the budgets of police departments across the country isn’t going to produce greater racial equality or improve the lives and safety of city dwellers. It’s going to produce more crime, just as we’ve already seen from some of these failed experiments.