When the D.C. Council voted this month to ramp up its police force by up to 350 officers, it was not an outlier. The Wall Street Journal reports that about half of the top 20 largest U.S. jurisdictions proposed increases in police funding in their 2022 budgets. It’s a disorienting change from the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, when a truly beautiful wave of activism united people of all races in a call for fewer police and more community investment.
What changed? Violent crime rates are increasing pretty much everywhere in America, fueled by a host of pandemic-related dislocations. And just like that, the liberation music that had been playing in my ears abruptly went quiet.
A recent Washington Post poll reflects both this swing of the pendulum and offers some hope. It found that while nearly 6 in 10 (59%) of respondents said increasing the number of police officers patrolling communities would reduce crime, fewer than half (44%) thought increasing prison sentences would make them safer. Likewise, 63% of people told the Post they think violent crime would be reduced if outreach workers, such as violence interrupters, were deployed to quell disputes before they escalate. And an overwhelming 82% said spending more money on economic opportunities in impoverished neighborhoods would be effective.
What these numbers tell me is that most residents intrinsically understand that crime is a byproduct of poverty and that if we deal with root causes like poor schooling, lack of investment and unemployment, we could reduce it tremendously. But the propaganda and fearmongering of politicians works. The result is a repeat of what happened in our communities during the crack era. Our elders, pastors and business leaders asked for more police. They also asked for neighborhood investment, better schools, jobs, etc., but all we got was more police, tougher sentences and mass incarceration.
The long-term impact of more police is hard to measure, since so many variables must be taken into account. But one study found that cities with the largest populations of Blacks fail to experience lower homicides. And even more people – primarily Blacks — are swept up into the criminal legal system, through more arrests for even low-level crimes. Yet more police has been our response to upticks in crime since Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs.” And mass incarceration has grown along with it.
“When crime goes up, that’s real, and all of us need to care and find ways to address it,” says singer-songwriter John Legend, who has become an outspoken critic of our existing criminal-legal system. “But we’re not going to solve it by mass incarcerating our way to safety. If police and incarceration were the key to us being safer, we’d be the safest country in the world. We’re already the most policed country in the world.”
We need to focus on prosecutors
So, what could stop more police from leading to more incarceration? The critical link is prosecutors. Most people focus on the judge, but it’s actually the prosecutor who often plays the pivotal role. These lawyers for the government are usually the ones who decide who can remain free during a trial and who must pay bail (which low-income people can’t afford). They decide what charges to file. And those charges often trigger harsh, mandatory sentences, giving the prosecutor another power – offering “deals” that get the accused to plead guilty, even when innocent, out of fear of a negative outcome at trial. (Nine out of 10 cases never go to trial!)
That’s why I was so hopeful last year when a group of current and former prosecutors, attorney generals, and other law enforcement leaders wrote a letter to the Biden-Harris administration calling for a Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecutions. Consider just a few parts of it: “The evidence is clear: our nation’s decades of tough-on-crime practices have not created safety; in fact, they’ve been anathema to justice. The U.S. detains 2.3 million people in prisons, jails and other confinement facilities, more than any other democratic nation. Racial, ethnic and class disparities pervade. American justice is far from equal. [And in this system,] prosecutors possess far-reaching discretion to charge crimes, recommend bail, plea bargain and recommend sentences…We need prosecutorial leaders at a state and local level to come together with justice-impacted people, defense attorneys, crime survivors, civil rights advocates, community and law enforcement leaders, researchers, Department of Justice representatives and other federal experts to listen, share innovations and create a roadmap that can help promote the justice system our communities seek and deserve.” D.C.’s own Attorney General Karl Racine was a prominent signatory.
We need more Karl Racines, and since 2014, a few have joined him: Alvin Bragg in New York City, George Gascón in Los Angeles, Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore and Kim Foxx in Cook County (Chicago). But now, the “crime wave” has brought attacks on virtually all of them. Before they even complete their first terms, Boudin and Gascón are targets of recall petitions. Bragg was forced to walk back some of his policies in his first month in office. And although Krasner won re-election, he faced a vicious contest.
In our nation’s capital, Racine has not been immune. In addition to calling for more police, Mayor Muriel Bowser recently lambasted his restorative justice approach to youthful offenders, saying they are not being held accountable.
Yet when researchers take a hard, careful look at the data, they conclude that progressive prosecutors aren’t associated with any increase in crime and, in some cases. appear to be doing substantial good.
Why, as a society, do we keep reverting to the same policies that have proven time and again to be ineffective and to cause a host of harmful side effects? Why is it that whenever there is the inevitable spike in crime, any reaction other than more police is met with fear and hostility?
I asked Karl Racine that question, and he told me, “It’s time to recognize that crime is cyclical, that progress, unfortunately isn’t linear, and that we’ve got to embrace the burden to change the system through data, statistics and personal stories of individuals who have been crushed and devastated by the system of tough-on-crime prosecution.”
That’s the goal of More Than Our Crimes.