Failing to arrest and lock up violent criminals is no favour to black communities
Over the past decade or so, America has undertaken a radical experiment in criminal justice reform.
The number of people arrested each year is dramatically down. In 2011, there were in excess of 12 million arrests. By 2021, that figure had fallen to 4.5 million. Even before the death of George Floyd in May 2020, the police seemed to be much more reluctant to arrest people.
When the police in America do make an arrest, there is now a much greater chance that public prosecutors won’t prosecute. At the same time, those that do get convicted are generally now given shorter sentences than before. As a consequence of all this, America’s prison population is now 25 percent lower than it was in 2011.
This move to a more lenient criminal justice system was driven by a curious coalition of both left and right.
Radical progressives, emboldened by the Black Lives Matter movement, have pursued an explicitly anti-police and anti-prison agenda. The criminal justice system, they believe, is irredeemably racist, given its tendency to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate a higher proportion of black people. Their solution is not only to defund the police, but elect as public prosecutors social justice activists who often won’t prosecute. The prison system itself, some on the radical left argue, should be abolished.
What is often less appreciated is that this leniency agenda has been supported by many well-meaning conservatives, too.
In 2018, Donald Trump proudly supported the First Step Act, a piece of federal legislation that explicitly aimed to reduce the prison population. Within the past decade, dozens of conservative states have passed laws that automatically allow offenders a right to apply for parole. Maybe, many conservative think tankers mused, the police can be a little too “militaristic”. And doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?
A brilliant new book, published by Rafael Mangual of the Manhattan Institute, blows apart these asinine arguments. Criminal (In)Justiceuses hard facts to show that criminal justice reform has produced a criminal justice disaster.
Leniency, Mangual shows, has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in crime. As America’s prison population has fallen by a quarter, violent crime has soared. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of homicides in America rose 56 percent, from 14,661 to 22,900. In progressive-run cities on the west coast, such as San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, homelessness and drug taking are endemic. Shoplifting is tolerated. Violent offenders are treated as though guilty of a mere misdemeanour. The middle
classes in such cities appear reluctant to stay and enjoy these social justice utopias, and are leaving in large numbers.
Even in conservative states such as my own Mississippi, the impact of misguided criminal justice reform has been devastating. The murder rate in our state capital, Jackson, has risen almost fourfold since new sentencing laws were passed in 2013, giving violent felons an automatic right to apply for parole.
America is learning the hard way that if you release from prison people that have an 80 percent chance of reoffending within the next ten years, this will increase crime.
Reformers pushed their anti-incarceration agenda claiming that there were better ways of reducing crime than by filling up the prisons. If there are better ways, America has yet to find them. Once you factor in for selection bias, there is remarkably little evidence that rehabilitation programs have anything like the efficacy those that run them want them to have.
Crime, Mangual shows, particularly violent crime, is hyper concentrated not only geographically, but demographically too. The victims of this new wave of violent crime are disproportionately African American.
According to data from JAMA, since 1990, the rate at which white men are killed by firearms in America has remained low and relatively constant, at well below 5 homicides per 100,000. Among black men in the US, however, the firearm homicide rate is now about ten times higher than it is for white men, at over 50 per 100,000.
Is America’s criminal justice system, now that it has fewer proactive arrests, less prosecution and shorter sentencing, doing a better job today for African American men? Given that the black male firearm homicide rate in the US has increased so dramatically in recent years, it is difficult to see how it can be.
America’s experiment in criminal justice reform was perhaps fuelled by a sense that the system was discriminatory and unfair for minority communities. What Mangual shows is that the move towards leniency has in fact had disastrous consequences for those communities. Different outcomes in the criminal justice system, the data suggests, are not reflective of any apparent biases within the system, but are reflective of differences in behavior.
As more and more Americans begin to recognise that crime is on the increase as a consequence of bad public policy choices, the race will soon be on to find solutions that actually work. Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, recently made it clear that if elected president, he would look to repeal Trump’s bill on criminal justice reform.
While the economy still polls as Americans number one concern, over two thirds now say that crime is a real threat. Interestingly, according to one recent poll, concern that crime is a real threat is particularly pronounced among nonwhite voters, a key part of the Democratic coalition.
Expect to see Democrats, as well as Republicans, offering tougher alternatives in place of the leniency of the past.
Douglas Carswell is President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.
This article originally appeared in The Telegraph.
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