Saturday, August 1, 2015

GateHouse: Criminal justice reform: What works and what doesn't?

Matthew T. Mangino
          GateHouse Media
          July 31, 2015
There is, no doubt, a groundswell of support for criminal justice reform. President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers have finally found some common ground.
Obama and his left-leaning progressive colleagues are attacking a broken criminal justice system for its unfair, often arbitrary treatment of minority and disadvantaged individuals. Grover Nordquist and his conservative allies have attacked the criminal justice system as an economic burden — a costly and obsolete model for punishment.
Whatever the reason that lawmakers are rushing toward reform, now is the time to pull back and consider where we are and how we got there.
With all the criticism of the criminal justice system, it is easy to forget that crime rates have fallen to unprecedented lows nationwide.
Republicans, long considered the party of law and order, are enthusiastically embracing reform in the criminal justice system — but at what cost?
Congressman Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, co-chair of the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus told McClatchy Newspapers, “Everything in society, [has] a pendulum. There was a lawlessness that was happening in the streets. But because we’ve been able to bring back that law and order, then you can look at the cost to society…”
Does that mean it’s alright to drive up the number of crime victims to save a little money? I’m not sure a victim of crime would agree.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, found that overall violent crime has plummeted. The victimization report is based on an annual scientific survey of Americans on whether they had been victimized in the previous year. The interviews included about 90,000 households and more than 160,000 persons in 2013.
Since 1993, the survey indicates the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 victimizations per 100,000 to 23.2 per 100,000.
Why have crime rates fallen so dramatically? Lawmakers should endeavor to find out before the president and Congress start overhauling the criminal justice system.
Criminologists continue to debate the reasons for the decline. Theories abound from a decline in the demand for crack cocaine, technological advancements, policing strategies, incarceration rates, even abortion and the decline of lead in the air.
There can be little doubt that the strong economy of the 1990s and 2000s played a significant role in declining crime rates. Unemployment was low, so young people were less likely to turn to the drug trade or other criminal activity for work.
Criminologists also seem to agree that mass incarceration accounted for about 10 to 20 percent of the overall crime drop since 1993. If only incapacitating criminals, incarceration has made neighborhoods safer.
Policing has had an impact on crime. Whether it was the much maligned “stop and frisk” in New York City or “hot spot” policing where police departments used real-time crime data to flood dangerous neighborhoods with officers, effective policing has contributed to the decline in crime. 
Psychologists David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones suggest that crimes committed both by and against young people declined because of the ways in which antidepressants and anti-ADHD medications, like Prozac and Ritalin, improved human behavior and moods. 
Economists Steven Levitt triggered a sensation with his theory that the legalization of abortion was responsible for as much as half of the crime decline. The idea was that a drop in unwanted children led to better parenting and fewer delinquent young people.
New York’s experience has been extraordinary. Homicide rates have dropped by about 82 percent in the last 25 years. “Perhaps the most optimistic lesson to take from New York’s experience is that high rates of homicides and muggings are not hardwired into a city’s population, cultures and institutions,” wrote Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in a 2011 Scientific American article.
As lawmakers debate the shifting of resources and priorities within the criminal justice system, they would do well to examine the successes and failures of communities across the country. The ebbs and flows of the economy may be beyond government control—the safety and security of our communities may not.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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