Law & the Courts

Better Policing Is the Best Criminal-Justice Reform

(Andrew Burton/Getty)
Sentencing and incarceration should be improved, but the best change is to reduce crime.

Is the moment for criminal-justice reform passing? After climbing briefly into the spotlight in 2015, the prison-reform initiative is on uncertain ground. Efforts at federal sentencing reform have stalled. After promising to make it the main cause of his final year in office, Barack Obama hardly mentioned it in his State of the Union address. Walter Russell Mead speculates that the Jeffersonian moment may be passing, and that criminal-justice reform may pass with it.

If so, is there reason to mourn? Our criminal-justice system is not (as activist Michelle Alexander claims) the “new Jim Crow.” It might be the new Y2K or Population Bomb: a semi-manufactured social crisis that channels multiple sources of public angst. Americans are rightly concerned about the failure of black Americans to flourish. A few high-profile police incidents, combined with grim statistics about incarceration, have helped activists make the case that the justice system is the primary oppressor. We’re sure to hear more about this soon, as the Democrats shift to their general-election script.

RELATED: The Myth of Wanton Police Shootings Collapses Under the Weight of Facts 

Is our justice system really suffused with bigotry? No. Incidents like the Laquan McDonald shooting reasonably provoke an outcry, but our inmate population mirrors our criminal population: disproportionately young, male, black and Latino, poor, and fatherless. Young black men are especially well represented in jails and prisons across the country; those lacking a high-school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than employed. But it’s a commonplace by now that they are far more likely to be shot by other young black men than by the police. Prison has surely saved many from violent death in the streets.

Our justice system, in other words, is not guilty of being a tool for racial oppression. At the same time, we might be more open to another suggestion: that the system is due for a tune-up. Police and prosecutors are not (in general) racist, but it would be surprising if decades worth of accumulated data hadn’t yielded some useful insights into the realities of modern crime. And, as with any area of government, our justice system can be slow to abandon practices that aren’t working well.

RELATED: The Numbers Are In: Black Lives Matter Is Wrong about Police

Race will inevitably be an element of this conversation, even if we agree that Lady Justice must be color-blind. Given that criminal justice has a particularly large impact on low-income black and Latino communities, it makes sense that a better-functioning system would be especially advantageous to them. Both crime and incarceration have had devastating effects on these demographic cohorts. Checking lawlessness is a core function of the state, and we owe it to these communities to do a better job of supplying justice and restoring order.

Now comes the awkward question. What if it turns out that conservatives can solidly reaffirm our commitment to law and order while also offering redress for racial grievances? Can we brace ourselves for the startling, resentment-crushing shock of an amicable win-win?

The overarching goal is to spend our money on blue uniforms instead of orange ones, creating safe neighborhoods for all Americans.

This is not a fanciful question. The Republican base is not in a conciliatory mood, and no right-leaning politician wants to be caught shaking hands with Black Lives Matter. At the same time, prudent justice reform could pay big political dividends, given the Left’s decision to elevate it to a watershed racial-justice issue. How badly do we want this to be a zero-sum game?

Conservatives could take the wind from Democratic sails by supporting a law-and-order, civil-rights reform agenda. This would include two major tenets. First, we should make prudent efforts to diminish our society’s reliance on incarceration. Second, we should put more resources towards high-quality policing in lawless neighborhoods. The overarching goal is to spend our money on blue uniforms instead of orange ones, creating safe neighborhoods for all Americans.

#share#Prison reform has been going on for several years at the state level, and from the results we know that there are better and worse ways to go about it. Haphazard, reactionary changes to the penal system can push crime rates upwards, as we saw in the wake of California’s court-mandated “realignment.” With its facilities filled well beyond capacity, California reclassified a number of felonies as misdemeanors, and over the following year transferred more than 20,000 prisoners into community-supervision programs. Crime rose, and recidivism rates are still stubbornly high. California prisons are still overcrowded. Realignment has not been a sterling success.

RELATED: The Truth About Mass Incarceration

Other states, such as Texas and Georgia, have managed to save money and decrease their inmate population through more controlled measures. By treating addiction, improving community supervision programs, and developing savvier risk-assessment strategies, these states have been able to close prisons and cut costs without seeing a rise in crime. The past 15 years have seen some encouraging breakthroughs in corrections, including the rise of “swift and certain sanctions” programs, which use small but consistent punishments to help low-level offenders get back on track. Taking advantage of these successes can help us improve our justice system, which is why major conservative figures such as Ken Cuccinelli, Asa Hutchinson, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry have signed onto Texas’s “Right on Crime” initiative.

Rehabilitating criminals is important, but it’s even better to discourage the young from going wrong in the first place.

Incarceration is needed for one excellent reason: It prevents dangerous people from threatening the public. But the downsides are also significant. It’s expensive and leaves much to be desired in terms of both deterrence and rehabilitation. A balanced approach will make use of incarceration’s obvious strength, by imprisoning the truly lawless, while simultaneously helping as many people as possible find the path to productive citizenship. It’s important for conservatives to stay engaged with this effort, so that reforms can be driven by sound data and not racially charged hysteria.

Rehabilitating criminals is important, but it’s even better to discourage the young from going wrong in the first place. Recognizing this, liberals constantly tout the virtues of “early childhood education,” but these programs are expensive and the evidence for their effectiveness is weak. There is a better and more cost-effective way to discourage criminality: We can hire more police and invest the needed resources to train them for the specific challenges of high-crime, high-addiction neighborhoods.

RELATED: Texas Shows How to Reduce Both Incarceration and Crime

Most high-crime urban neighborhoods are under Democratic governance, so conservatives may not be in a position to address the most serious problems. We should lose no opportunity, however, to indict them for their failure to respond to chronic lawlessness, which is far more crippling to the prospects of struggling minorities than the lack of first-rate preschools.

Instead of pressing these points, we often give cover to Democratic dereliction by rushing to blame appalling black homicide rates on fatherlessness and family breakdown. Undoubtedly, these are relevant factors. But advances in policing over past 15 years have proven that it is possible to reduce crime without remedying all of our underlying social problems. Larger and better-trained police forces tend to lower both crime rates and incarceration rates, even when family structures are non-ideal. It will also likely be easier to promote marriage, education, and employment when neighborhoods are safer. Young men who expect to be dead or incarcerated by age 25 tend not to engage in long-term planning.

#related#Will an increase in policing mean a dramatic rise in civil-rights complaints? Not necessarily. Law enforcement shouldn’t be constantly beholden to bean-counting statistical scrutiny, but we should fight the presumption that good policing is by nature invasive and trigger-happy. Better policing needn’t imply a barrage of stop-and-frisk, or a litany of kicked-in doors. Rather, we should use advances in analytics (like New York’s legendary CompStat program) and sustained community policing efforts to address the priorities of actual residents in high-crime neighborhoods. When police are seen as protectors within a community, officers become safer and crimes are easier to solve. Bad neighborhood relations lead to uncooperative residents, nervous cops, and more tragic incidents, such as the shooting of Tamir Rice.

In general, American cities are well policed. For every racist cop, there are many more unsung heroes who labor day after day to serve America’s poorest and most defenseless citizens. Recognizing this, perhaps we should be more proactive about diverting resources towards crime-stopping, rather than punishment-assessment. This could potentially be good for everyone, but especially for the ostensible victims of “the new Jim Crow.”

— Rachel Lu is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, currently studying criminal-justice reform.

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