Law Enforcement Burden-Sharing

In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, William Stuntz argues that increasing the number of police officers in U.S. cities would have a number of good results, one of which is that it would change the allocation of police time and personnel in a constructive way:

Laws banning violent felonies are underenforced in poor black neighborhoods; drug crimes in those same neighborhoods are punished too frequently and too harshly. Increasing the police-to-population ratio would address both problems. New York’s experience in the 199os supports that hypothesis: the city’s policing rate rose by more than a third, clearance rates for nondrug felonies also rose sharply, and felony drug arrests fell.’ That combination is natural: massive levels of drug punishment exist in part as a cheaper substitute for direct enforcement of violent crimes. More personnel make direct enforcement affordable, and thereby also make the indirect kind less attractive.

One problem, however, is that the incentives facing local officials are in misaligned in a number of ways, e.g.:

As things stand now, cities and counties pay nearly all of local police budgets, while state governments pay for building and running state penitentiaries. That allocation of budget responsibility makes it easy for local governments to impose too many prison sentences while hiring too few police officers. The incentives would change for the better if states, or state and federal governments taken together, paid half the bill for local policing (the charge would come to about $34 billion per year), while local governments paid half the cost of the prison beds they used (roughly $21 billion per year). Both cost-shifting measures are important, but the first is more so. Long ago, state and federal governments assumed a large share of the responsibility for paying for urban public schools, though the evidence that more money means better school performance is thin. The evidence that hiring more police officers improves crime control — without ramping up prison populations — is more robust. Yet cash-strapped cities are left to fund their police forces on their own. The predictable result is underpoliced city streets. [Emphasis added]

Given the fiscal constraints facing state governments, it is hard to imagine that they would voluntarily take on this responsibility, as it would represent a net spending increase. And my preference would be to keep the federal government at arm’s length, in the name of “one problem, one sovereign.” One can imagine a principled case for the federal government to help finance local policing in “gateway cities,” i.e., cities that attract large numbers of foreign tourists, but this is a bit too cute. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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