The issue of crime is frequently employed by politicians as an instrument of ideology. On the right, talk of law and order has often been a method to stoke racial and ethnic fears while remaining a step removed from racism. On the left, criminal justice reform has sometimes been narrowed to the issue of gun control or subsumed into a broader agenda of social justice activism.
If the president’s primary goal had been to reinforce liberal messaging, he could easily have proposed the “Ban All Guns and Crush Right-Wing Subversion Act of 2021.” But he did nothing of the sort. And his commitment to tangible policy outcomes led him beyond some traditional ideological categories.
In criminal justice policy, prescription is largely a function of diagnosis. Looking at three decades of declining violence, and at the past year’s major spike in killings, a few conclusions are unavoidable:
First, aggressive policing and mass incarceration actually work in reducing violent crime. In his book “Uneasy Peace,” the sociologist Patrick Sharkey sets out the evidence that having more “guardians” — police officers, private security forces, closed-circuit cameras — in public spaces makes those places safer. Keeping violent criminals off the streets for longer periods makes the streets less violent. And the benefits of greater safety to poor and minority communities are considerable. Sharkey points out that reductions in violent crime since the 1990s have increased the average life expectancy of Black men by an amount equivalent to the elimination of obesity.
Second, heavy-handed police tactics can also produce community resentment, even rage. This is the reason Sharkey thinks that brute force methods are ultimately unsustainable. When portions of cities are effectively under police occupation, and imprisonment is massively over-applied, the resulting peace is inherently fragile. A moment of filmed police brutality can set spark to tinder. The murder of George Floyd led to unrest last year in some 140 U.S. cities.
Third, in the wake of police scandals, violence can rise. Police pull back from communities and suffer from morale problems when the legitimacy of their calling is questioned. Communities pull back from the police, turning to them less frequently and providing less cooperation and information. When the peace of a community is maintained mainly by external force, the removal of that force is likely to result in additional violence.
Many police officials and analysts also point to a fourth factor in rising violence: the weakening of social ties that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. “People lost connections to institutions of community life,” Sharkey said during an interview with the Atlantic, “which include school, summer jobs programs, pools and libraries. Those are the institutions that create connections between members of communities, especially for young people. When individuals are not connected to those institutions, then they’re out in public spaces, often without adults present. And while that dynamic doesn’t always lead to a rise in violence, it can.”
In the light of these four claims, the details of Biden’s crime proposal make good sense. It begins with hiring more police officers, with funding from the American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion in state and local spending. The plan also subsidizes overtime for trust-building community policing. The goal is clearly to encourage law enforcement that is active without being oppressive. But Biden is proposing to expand the number of police, not defenestrate them.
Biden’s main focus on gun control — going after gun traffickers and rogue gun dealers — is realistic, incremental and strategic.
The administration’s plan expands employment and housing programs that help released prisoners to find a foothold in a new life.
And Biden’s plan would invest billions of dollars in — and encourage private foundation support for — community violence intervention programs. These programs use trusted local messengers to intervene directly with young people to resolve conflicts and find constructive alternatives to violence. For those who need reminding, supporting community institutions to reach at-risk children is straight out of the compassionate conservatism playbook.
This approach to crime may not be revolutionary, but it is rational, practical and well-devised. And it has already revealed a great deal about politics in the Biden era.
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