Politics & Policy

Revive Law-and-Order Conservatism

(Spencer Platt/Getty)

Fox News earned generally high marks, and ratings, for last week’s Republican debates. But some liberals were upset about how little the candidates were pressed on the “Black Lives Matter” question. Apart from one brief interchange between moderator Megyn Kelly and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, law-and-order issues got little airtime during either the undercard or overcard debate.

The liberals are on to something. Questions about crime, incarceration, and policing are likely to be more prominent throughout the 2016 campaign than they were Thursday evening, if for no other reason than left-leaning media will push them.

GOP candidates must provide leadership, for the nation and their party, to ensure that, amid a growing lenience in attitudes towards law and order, our priorities remain in order. Despite the gains of recent decades, crime in America remains too high, and addressing that, not our high incarceration rate or police officers’ use of violent force, must remain the primary goal of governments’ public-safety efforts. 

Over the past year, intense media scrutiny of violent interactions between police and minorities has led to rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and to massive protests elsewhere. So long as the New York Times and anti-cop activist groups continue with their provocations, we can be reasonably confident that more violent unrest is to come.

The spectacle of chaos descending on cities long dominated by Democrats obviously plays to the GOP’s advantage. Independent voters in purple-state suburbs don’t like riots. If next summer Philadelphia erupts around the time of the 2016 Democratic national convention, that’s going to be hard for the Left to explain.

But short-term political calculations aside, Republican candidates must provide leadership on this issue. Conservative attitudes toward crime and punishment are notably softer now than they have been in many decades. Nebraska, which hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964, outlawed the death penalty in May. House Speaker John Boehner made headlines last month by allowing a criminal-justice reform bill to move forward, explaining that “we’ve got a lot of people in prison that frankly in my view really don’t need to be there.” The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other liberal outlets have seized on these developments as evidence of the twilight of law-and-order conservatism. But that depends significantly on the 2016 nominee, who will have the most influence on the GOP’s near-term direction on these issues.

Conservative attitudes toward crime and punishment are notably softer now than they have been in many decades.

President Obama will leave two harmful legacies relating to crime. First, since the Black Lives Matter movement began, he has leant increasing high-level support to activists’ attempts to reframe the policy debate from “How do we bring down crime?” to “How do we bring down our incarceration rate and stop police from going around shooting unarmed minorities?” Second, depressingly, the nation has become more racially polarized under our first black president. A New York Times/CBS News poll in July found that the share of Americans who believe that race relations are “generally bad” has grown from one third to almost 60 percent since 2009. It is difficult to imagine that Ta Nehisi Coates would have been dubbed America’s “foremost public intellectual” by the Washington Post had his Between the World and Me appeared ten years ago.

Whither the GOP on crime? Whither the nation? Republican presidential candidates should develop their law-and-order platforms guided by the following four principles.

First, emphasize that we still have a serious crime problem. Yes, murders, assaults, and robberies have plummeted since the early 1990s, but the peak was very high to begin with. In 2014, New York City’s murders hit a 50-year low, but there were still more than three times as many as in London, which has about the same population. Incarceration must remain part of the solution to keeping streets safe. Those who claim that the decline in crime and the growth in the prison population over recent decades represents only correlation, not causation, have an impossibly surgical conception of how policymaking works. History counsels caution on de-incarceration: Between 1963 and 1972, America’s prison population fell by 18 percent and the murder rate rose 80 percent.

Second, curb the enthusiasm on technology’s ability to improve policing and relations between police and the communities they serve. Widespread adoption of body cameras is probably inevitable, but their phase-in should be gradual, not immediate. During the post–World War II era, police departments rapidly embraced the then-cutting-edge technology of radio-equipped patrol cars. The unintended result was an overly reactive policing model that alienated patrolmen and communities and failed to keep crime down. Technology is never simply a tool: It always changes behavior in unexpected ways.

Third, emphasize the underappreciated importance of victim restitution. As Jill Leovy writes in her book Ghettoside, black communities during the Jim Crow era suffered from a severe lack of law enforcement. Even now, hundreds of thousands of violent crimes and millions of property crimes occur annually with total impunity. According to FBI statistics, over a third of all murders in 2013 did not result in an arrest. Property-crime clearance rates are stunningly low. Given that only 13 percent of burglaries were cleared in 2013, it’s surprising that only 1.8 million were committed.

Fourth, highlight local-government success stories. Though presidents’ words and deeds matter, dealing with crime remains overwhelmingly a state and local responsibility. (There are more than six times as many local police as federal law-enforcement personnel, and 86 percent of America’s 1.6 million inmate population are held in state prisons.) Liberals’ de-incarceration agenda would be more coherent if they didn’t push equally aggressively against proactive policing tactics such as “broken windows” and stop-question-and-frisk. The goal of proactive policing is order maintenance, and when it works, there’s less crime, and so fewer people go to jail. Since the “broken windows” policing era began in 1992, New York City’s inmate population has been nearly cut in half.

At this stage in the 2016 contest, Democrats and Republicans seem evenly matched. While the map has favored Democrats in recent national elections, Republicans can rely on a more enthusiastic base. (Would 24 million viewers have tuned into a debate between Hillary Clinton and her opponents?) Issues and events will tip the scales. Though it’s liberals who are most determined to press questions about law and order, it remains Republicans’ issue to lose, and they should welcome the debate.

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