Standby: Here We Go Again!

The following article appears in today’s New York Times. It was written by Thomas B. Edsall who contributes a weekly column from our nation’s capital on politics, demographics and inequality.

What he had to say brought forth some very old and deep feelings from the past about engaging in wars on crime, drugs, and “difference.” All I could think was “here we go again!” The nation’s constant struggle between punishment and treatment, “tough” and “soft” policing, and the use of incarceration to solve our social and economic problems.

Such a discussion always puts into jeopardy our core values of fairness, equality, and justice in our system of government.

But the real question here is what should the response be from today’s police leaders? What, for want of a better approach, is the “middle ground” here? How can we engage in a respectful discussion of this interests? How can the homelessness and incarceration problem that faces our nation be solved? Will it be through enforcement or social programs aimed at affordable housing and a “living wage” or through more incarceration in which that even the most conservation among us say we can no longer afford?

Time will no doubt tell. In the meantime, however, police leaders need to have a strong and informed voice about these proposals, have thoughtful solutions of their own, and always remembering they serve ALL the people.

Here are some of the positions and problems Edsall highlights in his article “Trump Wants Law and Order Front and Center:”

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+ Unexpectedly, the 2020 presidential campaign is drilling down on petty crime and homelessness.

+ Donald Trump and his Republican allies are reviving law-and-order themes similar to those used effectively by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in the late 1960s and early 1970s to demonize racial minorities.

+ Democratic district attorneys — in cities, counties and suburbs from Philadelphia, Orlando, Chicago and St. Louis to Contra Costa County, Calif., Suffolk County, Mass., and Durham County, N.C. — are pursuing policies intended to decriminalize vagrancy, and eliminate cash bail, and they are aggressively pursuing charges in cases of shootings by police officers.

+ They are playing a key role in a hotly politicized movement to curb mass incarceration and to roll back what has become known as “the carceral state.”

+ Mass incarceration is the civil rights crisis of our time. The racial disparities pervasive in our justice system compound at every juncture: African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, detained before trial, and given harsher sentences than whites…

+ The solutions they envisage range broadly: “From eliminating prison for lower-level crimes to incentivizing states to decarcerate, from ending bail to abolishing private prisons, from reforming housing and employment laws to changing the public perception of the justice system and cultivating respect for all lives.”

At the same time, as this movement has been gaining momentum, it has provided ammunition for a powerful counterattack from President Trump, his attorney general, William Barr, and other law-and-order Republicans.

+ Republicans, in turn, are betting that the Democratic presidential candidates have moved substantially farther to the left on issues of crime and punishment than the voting public.

+ Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, described the thinking underpinning progressive Democratic policies broadening the rights of the homeless. In an email, Tribe wrote: “My ‘right’ not to be upset by your appearance or life choices cannot occupy the same plane as your right to live your life as you opt to, or are compelled to, live it if we are to have a viable social and legal system. One needn’t be a libertarian to recognize that there is a difference in kind between someone’s genuine right to be free of another’s physical intrusion or displacement and someone’s ersatz right to be free of another’s merely offending or upsetting behavior or circumstances.”

+ Trump, for his part, clearly rejects Tribe’s distinction between first versus second order, or genuine versus ersatz, rights…

+ Republicans are responding to the initiatives of progressive prosecutors with a vengeance. In a fiery speech on Aug. 12 at the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police’s conference in New Orleans, Barr warned that progressive prosecutors in cities across the nation are “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety.”

+ Turning the decarceration movement into a 2020 campaign issue fits into Trump’s go-to strategy of inflaming divisive conflicts, especially those involving disputed rights — particularly those benefiting minorities — in order to activate racial resentment, to mobilize his core voters and to goad swing voters into lining up against the Democratic Party. While Trump’s strategy was successful in 2016, it is by no means clear that this strategy will work as well in 2020.

+ The approach to prosecution adopted by [more liberal prosecutors] directly contradicts the “broken windows” policing strategy that was widely popular among both Democrats and Republicans in the 1990s.

+ Many of the crimes progressive prosecutors are declining to press charges on are linked to homelessness, vagrancy, drug possession, disorderly conduct, breaking into vacant property, and so forth — which, from a strategic point of view, enables Trump and his allies to link homelessness with progressive Democratic law enforcement policies…

+ The Trump administration has been working for months to develop a new, hard-nosed federal policy on homelessness…  [T]he administration is expected to fund local police efforts to remove public encampments and to put the homeless in federal shelters requiring strict adherence to rules of sobriety and non-disruptive behavior.

+The Trump campaign is gambling that Democrats are outside the mainstream of public opinion on these issues, while the leading Democratic candidates are convinced that enough of the electorate has become sufficiently skeptical of law-and-order strategies — and the accompanying racial undertones (and overtones) — to produce a Democratic victory on Nov. 3, 2020.

+ Over the past 50 years, Democratic strategies based on the presumption of increasing liberalism among voters at large have rarely succeeded. Perhaps 2020 will be different.

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You can read the full article HERE.

3 Comments

  1. At the heart of the problem is the commodification of prison populations by government through the outsourcing of corrections facilities to private enterprises to operate. For them it pays to have a revolving door of prisoners as that keeps the shareholders happy. This incongruent with the ideals of reformative justice. There is plenty of quality research and literature that demonstrates the retributive justice neoliberal policies do not work at fixing the problem. They serve to make the population feel better that something is being done about “criminals” by the government- thus feeds into the populist agendas of being tough on crime to win elections. This is of course short sighted as it is well established putting people in jails serves to set them up for a life of failures once they leave as they can’t get a job, can’t get a house and end up on the wrong side of the law again- back in jail. Great for business though. Unless this paradigm changes we will be revisiting this article again in another ten years.

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  2. Spot on Cyndia considering the fact that corrupt white collar business leaders always get second chances, third or even fourth chances to get a job compare to the rest of us. Not to mention they are treated as heroes for ripping off the taxpayers and the government and are defended by other business leaders as being victims of “zealous” government prosecution.

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