Our criminal justice system relies on deterrence to prevent crime, cracking down on minor crimes and dishing out harsh penalties to disincentivize would-be criminals from crime. But it doesn’t work, and the failings of broken windows policing—the theory that punishing less serious crimes, like vandalism and panhandling, will prevent more serious crime—have taught us this. In fact, those harsh sentences make it all the more likely that convicted criminals will reoffend because our corrections system rarely provides inmates with the necessary tools to help reintegrate them into society. They’d much rather use them for chattel slavery. This creates a cycle where the futures of many Americans are dimmed and their humanity is stripped away. That’s a system that neither works to serve justice nor protects its citizens. With all this considered, we continue to allow this system to exist.
The police, generally, make people feel safe. It’s an institution most Americans know and have a connection to. The idea of taking some money out of their hands causes a lot of anxiety. It’s easy to imagine the country collapsing into a world like that of the Purge universe where lawlessness reigns supreme, but those fears have no basis in reality. The police, whether you like it or not, are a necessary institution for the time being. However, it’s important to remember that policing isn’t virtuous. It’s a line of work that’s corrupted by racism and white supremacy. The people who wear the uniforms are far from perfect. But unlike us, the state imbues them with so much power and sovereignty that it’s nearly impossible to hold them accountable. Doctrines like qualified immunity protect officers from being sued for injustices they may commit while in uniform. Reforms that are offered are roundly rejected, and the police refuse to reform themselves. Instead, we have had to learn how to circumvent their failings. People of color, especially men, have had to learn how to control and conduct themselves around law enforcement. Women have had to become their own champions because the police often don’t believe them.
Police unions have made it so they have outsized power and influence over our politics and our rhetoric. They’ve narrowed our idea of what justice can look like and have made it easy to criminalize our fellow citizens without a second thought. You’d think all this power and ability to freely trample on our constitutional rights would stop crime, but it hasn’t, and no amount of money is going to change that. Policing in America obviously needs a lot of reforms, but those reforms won’t have an effect on the causes of criminality, which are what necessitate the police’s existence in the first place.
Addressing the roots of criminality
Instead of allowing our elected officials to keep throwing money at the problem with the hope that it’ll one day eliminate crime, there needs to be a concerted effort to address the roots of criminality. Directing more of our tax dollars to unnecessary militarization won’t house the homeless, feed the hungry, or provide future generations with a quality education.
What many Americans proposed in the summer of 2020 is a reimagining of what policing and public safety look like in this country, one that doesn’t operate from a position of punishment and lethal force, but rather community investment and second chances. George Floyd’s murder two years ago was the consequence of multiple failings in modern-day police work: one officer’s unwillingness to understand the circumstance of a petty crime, his unwillingness to use anything other than punishment, a lack of empathy and understanding of the community he served, another officer’s inability to hold his senior accountable, and a community’s inability to act.
After the summer of 2020, more people of all ages, races, and gender identities were engaged and excited to pressure their elected officials to enact real change for their communities than ever before. And that engagement bore fruit. Across the country, cities and municipalities made commitments to cut funding to their respective police departments and created plans for investing in community-based public safety programs. The goal of those programs was to treat the symptoms of crime rather than react and punish it.
Two years later, that excitement dissipated. It’s hard to keep people engaged, and the idea of defunding the police was always very, very contentious. So, just like Episode V of Star Wars, the Empire struck back. When violent crime rates continued to rise, calls for more police action grew louder and louder. Public support for defunding the police waned and other community investment plans stopped. Politicians were, as always, afraid of being called “soft on crime.”
The Fear of being ‘soft on crime’
Police unions flexed their muscles and lobbied municipalities to give them their money back, which a number of cities did. New York elected a former cop as their new mayor. Community-based public safety plans were scrapped or put on the back burner across the country. Detractors blamed community investment programs for the rise in crime despite the fact that they weren’t actually at fault. Much of the progress that was made in 2020 burnt out, and George Floyd would join the ceaseless list of Black Americans who were murdered by the police without change.
We need to reimagine what policing can look like in this country, or we’ll continue to repeat the sins of our past. We need to have the necessary courage to try new methods with efficacy that is unproven because we only know what doesn’t work. The cube doesn’t fit through the cylinder hole. Practices like stop and frisk, mandatory minimums, and three-strikes sentencing, along with broken windows, have done nothing but encourage the proliferation of our prison system and steal the lives of the less fortunate. Continuing to give more money to police departments won’t stop crime, no matter what a police union boss’ rhetoric might say.
Cities must make a significant investment in their communities to ensure their citizens all have a fair chance at building a life for themselves. We like to think we live in a meritocracy because it’s easy to forget that many of our fellow citizens find themselves on an uneven playing field. Income inequality has worsened, Black communities are still dealing with the legacy of redlining, and misogyny remains a part of many American workplaces. And that’s just to name a few.
While we’ve liberally handed more money over to the wrong causes, social programs that would ameliorate our inequalities have been underfunded. Helping provide subsidized or free housing, health care, child care, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment would go a long way to combating poverty, correcting past mistakes, and making significant inroads to achieving racial and economic justice.
Education, or lack thereof, correlates very strongly with crime. We need to ensure that all Americans, regardless of class, are attending properly funded schools with ample after-school programs to ensure students are being supported and challenged. We need to continue to lobby and push for universal health care because not only will it help provide a path to racial and economic justice in this country, access to health care correlates with a significant decrease in crime rates. It’s ridiculous that a country that spends so much money on funding prisons only offers free health care to people who are imprisoned.
Investing in social programs
State investment in public rehab centers can also have a significant effect on crime. Instead of criminalizing people who have drug and alcohol addictions, states (and their budgets) would be better served treating their addictions rather than punishing addicts for having them. There is a lot more we can do to enact real change. Raising the minimum wage would also help combat poverty. Investing in universal child care would save money for Americans who need it most and increase their employment opportunities. Universal community college would increase educational opportunities for people who previously would not have access to it. Expanding reintegration programs for felons would work to combat recidivism. Additionally, affordable housing would help Americans save money and increase their economic opportunities.
Some of the ideas turned into plans following the summer of 2020. The city of Austin bought hotels to combat homelessness. Dallas did as well. New York developed a mental health response team to answer nonviolent calls instead of the police. Oakland shifted $18 million toward crime prevention programs. Four states voted to legalize recreational marijuana, which has disproportionally benefited people of color. Chicago public schools cut more than half of their school resource officers, who have often played a key role in the “school to prison pipeline.” Cities across the country hired social workers to replace police officers. This is a good start, but we need to do so much more.
It’s understandable that these plans might cause skepticism. Most lack real-world application in the United States, so it’s hard to imagine what they’ll look like in practice. Additionally, many people don’t think we should be spending our taxes on people who chose to break the law. It’s very easy to fall into that line of thinking, but shouldn’t the goal be to stop crime from happening so we don’t have to continue footing the bill for the costs of policing, courts, and jails? There are so many other ideas that have worked for other countries.
The current system doesn't work. It’s a system that makes people who look like me two times more likely to be stopped by the police, five times more likely to be arrested, three times more likely to be killed by the police, and more likely to be convicted than my fairer-skinned compatriots. Yet it’s a system many of us have so freely accepted because we know no other way. How many people of color have to have their lives ruined or taken away before we try something different?
Each of us needs to make a choice about what we want our future to look like. We can continue as is where police are unencumbered, without oversight, and without any real solutions. Or we can try targeted solutions for the problems that ail our fellow citizens. We must not forget that each of us is inherently good. Bad circumstances drive people to make bad choices. Wouldn’t it be better if those circumstances didn’t exist in the first place?
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.
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