Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"A Cautious Optimism"

Two Powerful Signals of a Major Shift on Crime:

Two decisions Monday, one by a federal judge in New York and the other by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., were powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago. Those policies have been denounced as discriminatory and responsible for explosive growth in the prison population.

Critics have long contended that draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses, as well as stop-and-frisk police policies that target higher-crime and minority neighborhoods, have a disproportionate impact on members of minority groups. On Monday, Mr. Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke the sentencing laws, and a judge found that stop-and-frisk practices in New York were unconstitutional racial profiling.

Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon professor who has studied race and incarceration issues, said Mr. Holder’s speech and Judge Scheindlin’s stop-and-frisk ruling both addressed policies that “were attempts to stop crime, but they weren’t terribly effective.” 

Together, he said, the events indicated that society was “trying to become more effective and more targeted and, in the process, to reduce the heavy impact on particularly African-Americans.” 

Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor who wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” an influential 2010 book about the racial impact of policies like stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimum drug sentences, said the two developments gave her a sense of “cautious optimism.”  
I prefer Alexander and Blumstein's comments to some of the other overwrought proclamations regarding Holder's speech and the ruling on Stop and Frisk (and yes, for those long-time readers wondering "do you still think Holder is the most inept AG ever?" the answer is yes).

Was it a good speech (and about 5 years too late)? Sure. The judge's ruling was also a step in the right direction. But "historic" or "game-changing" or "ground breaking?" Shake yourself.

Why? Because Holder's policy for ratcheting down the mandatory-minimum sentences affects only federal level prosecutions, convictions and incarceration. The federal system accounts for slightly more than 200,000 of the 2.2 million people behind bars. A reduction of even 10% in the federal system will barely even register in the national numbers.

Most of those incarcerated in the "War on Drugs" are incarcerated at the state and local level. Until they move away from the get tough policies (which some, admittedly, are doing) we won't see a wholesale de-carceration take place for quite awhile.

The ruling against Stop and Frisk is also welcome. Stop and Frisk was a relic of the Guiliani era in NYC, part of the Wilson/Kelling/Bratton "Quality of Life" zero-tolerance policing which adherents claimed reduced crime in Gotham and elsewhere. 

Of course, it had nothing to do with lowering crime, as critics have pointed out for over a decade, but it took Judge Scheindlin's ruling to not only point that out, but perhaps begin putting nails in the coffin of the heavy handed police tactics which have been used to muscle and intimidate lower-income, disproportionately black residents of New York for nearly 20 years.

But if you think everyone's on board (cautiously or deliriously), think again. The proponents of git tuff still exist and they will be heard.
William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, described Mr. Holder’s move as a victory for drug dealers that would incentivize greater sales of addictive contraband, and he suggested that the stop-and-frisk ruling could be overturned on appeal.

Mr. Otis also warned that society was becoming “complacent” and forgetting that the drug and sentencing policies enacted over the last three decades had contributed to the falling crime rates.
And this, from my favorite group of conservatives over at Crime and Consequences:
 I will make no attempt to summarize the arguments on their merits.  I will just say very briefly that the AG's action seems to take root in a jaundiced view of our criminal justice system, a system that, certainly in the view of its inmates, is a failure.  

At a tiny fraction of the cost of entitlement programs, stern sentencing has helped drop the crime rate 50% in 20 years, thus contributing to thousands if not millions of crimes that were never committed, and thousands if not million of potential victims who were not abused, beaten up, molested, swindled and robbed.

May all our social policies be that "broken."
For some, the fantasy that the get tough policies produced the drop in crime will never die, no matter what the overwhelming evidence shows to the contrary. And as I've warned for several years on this blog, all it will take is a slight uptick in crime nation-wide (more likely to occur as the economy turns around), and they will be bleating down your door with calls to return to the good old days of the lock 'em up 80's and 90's.

Meanwhile, to continue the good news of the day, and updating a story I've written about a few times, Whitey Bulger was convicted yesterday in Boston.
James (Whitey) Bulger, the mobster who terrorized South Boston in the 1970s and ‘80s, holding the city in his thrall even after he disappeared, was convicted Monday of a sweeping array of gangland crimes, including 11 murders. He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Looking back on it, Bulger's defense erred by not invoking the Stand Your Ground laws of Florida and elsewhere. I mean, dude was just defending his territory, wasn't he? Snicker. 

Anyway, a good day over all for those of who study crime and punishment. Cautiously optimistic, indeed.

Cross Posted to The Cranky Sociologists

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