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Liberals Never Cared About Substantive Criminal Justice Reform, They Just Liked Slogans
An uptick in murders and a full-blown media panic has all but killed reform efforts. It’s important to understand this quick and cynical backlash never had anything to do with “data.”
The most cursory survey of national news, local San Francisco and New York news, and social media makes it clear that substantive criminal legal reform is politically dead. To the extent it has had any life over the past five to 10 years, it gained some mainstream popularity among liberals who, during historically low crime rates, adopted a handful of modest reform positions, if only to placate the mass uprisings of 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2020. This is now over. There is no momentum for any broad “reform,” and, on a state and local level, reform efforts are increasingly out of fashion with electeds, or reduced to superficial half measures.
This isn’t, of course, to say the movement itself is dead. Movements to fight police violence and incarceration existed long before the recent wave of mass protests and will continue to exist long after Democratic politicians stopped acting like they cared about the cause of reform. The movements, born in the streets and from organic political grievances, will live on because their causes do, and they will one day come back stronger than ever. But, as far as mainstream Democratic Party and liberal messaging, we are more or less back to the days of high-profile Democrats, the New York Times, and the Atlantic warning us about “super predators,” boosting Broken Windows, and menacing “crack babies”. Now, like then, Tough on Crime reaction will not be decided by conservatives, but liberals and liberal media, in urgent need of pseudoscientific, polite pretexts to back more incarceration and more policing.
Despite some exceptions, such as Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, the so-called progressive prosecutor movement is effectively over. District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco is all but out of office, facing a recall in June, Democratic Party leadership can’t rush fast enough to vote for police-loving bills and kill even modest reform, and CNN and MSNBC are nonstop anti-defund media outlets. Our supposed bold truth-tellers like Glenn Greenwald have the exact same line as the Biden Administration, James Carville, and Chris Cuomo. Everyone agrees, defund—or any reform slogan that makes the mistake of being an actual, concrete policy goal—is a dead end.
There’s a glaring question, a central contradiction, that the anti-defund, anti-abolition, anti-actual-substantive-reform crowd simply doesn’t have an answer for.
It’s the basic fact that, for decades, the United States had the highest murder rate—and one of the highest crime rates, in general—among rich countries, but also had, far and away, the highest incarceration rate. Using data before any recent reform, 2010, the average American was 25 times more likely to be shot and killed by another American than those in other wealthy nations.
Yet, at the same time, the United States had (and still does have) the largest incarceration rate in the world. Not just among rich countries, but among any country. And again, this isn’t even close:
For decades, the United States has locked up three to five times more people than countries of comparable wealth while, at the same time, having the highest murder rate among rich countries and a higher-than-average violent crime rate. This has been the case, even as the crime rate relative to historic highs of the 1980s and 1990s, dropped.
Keep this in mind as the backlash against recent modest reforms grows stronger. No matter how many charts and graphs wonks throw at you, remember that the U.S. is already the most incarcerated population on Earth and continues to have one of the highest crime rates among rich countries, including, by far, the highest homicide rate. No matter how much sophistry the pro-incarceration Big Serious Thinkers pummel you with, remember this basic fact and hold on to it like grim death because this core contradiction hasn’t and will likely never change.
And this isn’t even addressing the far more morally urgent issue of how much human suffering—and yes, “crime”—is driven by incarceration itself. This is simply using the Tough on Crime crowd’s own perverse moral logic that doesn’t include the violence, rape, abuse, lost employment, lost time with loved ones, depression, substance abuse, and suffering caused by incarceration itself as an input into the relevant calculus. Nor does this even mention the abhorrent, widespread, well-documented racism of both. Nor does it matter that multiple studies have shown that pretrial detention— which is the main thing being “toughened up” lately in cities throughout the U.S.—actually increases the likelihood a person will commit future crimes.
Black Lives Matter, George Floyd protests, and the abolition and defund movements over the past seven years did a great deal to shake us out of our mindless deference to Tough on Crime dogma, to challenge the assumption that the countless black and brown youth shoved into our carceral meat grinder were simply a cost of doing business. That their “criminality” emerged from discrete moral failings and not a broad failure of the social welfare state. That not only did our policy of arresting and jailing millions of people fail on the basic moral level of institutionalizing, for decades, a cure that was worse than the disease, but failed at its own logic by having seemingly no impact on aggregate crime rates.
Now, pro-carceral pundits will point to studies showing that longer, more severe prison sentences did help reduce crime in the 1990s. While this may be true in certain circumstances, it ignores the cross-nation, or cross-cultural analysis that shows dozens of other rich countries have extremely low incarceration rates and relatively low murder rates. This reality, this basic contradiction, they have no answer for. It’s the beating, pumping heart of the problem that none of the tedious pro-incarceration crowd wants to respond to. And to the extent that they do, they vaguely gesture toward the uniquely American problems of massive inequality or racism as if these are separate issues, rather than precisely the problem defund and abolition movements are trying to connect incarceration to.
The reality is that empirically, even if high rates of incarceration reduce “crime” (again, assuming the unmeasured and unseen harm of imprisonment itself isn’t counted as a crime), they still do so far less efficiently than other means of social intervention. From prenatal care, to early childhood care, to massive welfare spending, to early childhood development, to more money on schools and social services, there are entire server farms of studies showing other mechanisms of social intervention reduce crime with far less social and racist violence than our status quo of locking up “offenders” after the crime is committed.
Recent viral video-driven reactionary politics in the Bay Area paint a bleak picture. But California spends billions on social safety nets and still has a surge of retail crime, the anti-reformers argue. Even granting this premise (which is very much in doubt), it’s not nearly enough—no regional-only funding system ever is. Like pointing out Vermont’s “failed” universal health care plan of the 2000s as evidence for why a federal program of universal healthcare won’t work, California’s allegedly high social spending that involves seemingly big scary numbers is used as a foil to meaningful federal solutions. The Build Back Better bill’s $2.5 billion a year in rental assistance, and $1.5 billion a year to “preserve rental homes for low income Americans'' is wildly insufficient. New York City’s police budget alone is worth more than Build Back Better allocates for building new low-income housing. Setting aside our massive inequality (which almost all sociologists argue correlates heavily with crime rates), the amount of money we allocated in our once-in-a-generation social spending bill toward anything resembling preventive crime measures is laughably inadequate.
Tough on Crime Bay Area liberals justify their Boudin recall by insisting those featured in their “viral videos” robbing stores are not desperate poor people stealing from Walgreens or luxury stores to survive but are, instead, part of “organized crime rings.” Never mind that those pushing for the gratuitous and harsh crime bills of the 1990s made the exact same argument 25 years ago. Indeed, in Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous 1996 “super predators” lecture, she spends half of the speech assuring skeptical liberals that this new breed of criminals were, in fact, “connected to drug cartels and not just gangs of kids anymore.” “Gang members,” “super predators,” “organized crime rings”—a revolving door of pejorative labels is needed to assure a new generation of squeamish white liberals that This Time Will Be Different. It’s not Jean Valjean we’re going after, but Big Retail Theft Crime Rings. Hey, one of them even drives a BMW and, as we all know, “gangbangers,” born from poverty and a lack of opportunity, never managed to get their hands on nice cars. It’s Smash and Grab La Cosa Nostra with org charts and rituals. Ignore the fact that the homeless man or 15-year-old kid you see in the video will actually be the one rounded up and put in a cage for years. It’s basically The Mafia so you’re not a bad person for wanting the police to arrest and imprison more faceless poor people and repeal Prop 47.
None of it makes any sense but it’s not supposed to.
It’s supposed to make liberals feel better for opposing substantive reform. Which is why getting into the weeds of empiricism is, to put it crudely, playing a losing game. Because “studies” aren't really what's driving the reactionary pushback to recent Black Lives Matter/George Floyd reforms, nor is any crime data. The people opposing substantive reform today are the same people who opposed it in 2019, 2016, and 2014. And they would oppose it if crime went down, up, or sideways. What changed is the target of the messaging, namely fence-sitting white liberals.
The backlash against meaningful police reform isn’t based on bespectacled wonks pouring over data and reluctantly, with a heavy heart, coming to the data-driven conclusion we must, unfortunately, go back to arresting and imprisoning countless faceless minorities. It’s about rebranding old racist dogma, protecting private property, and midwifing the Democratic Party’s short-term electoral needs. And it’s naive to act like it’s anything else. It’s fear, it’s serving the interests of wealthy donors, and it’s centering the political expediency of Democrats who are worried about 2022 and 2024. And, just like in the 1990s, it’s about pandering to and creating content for rich liberals whose primary concern is home prices and “good schools,” who also want to look like they care about racial justice.
Ultimately, it’s a political question, not a “data-driven” one, no matter how much Globe Emoji Twitter tries to tell you otherwise. Given that our biggest, most influential brains have entirely foreclosed on a robust social welfare solution to America’s “crime problem,” the only “solution” is to revert back to the old ways of locking up surplus populations and simply repackaging it with nicer sounding modifiers. More “nuanced” Stop and Frisk, more “evidence-based” policing, more “community initiatives.”
But again, the basic fact remains: The U.S. is ranked first out of 195 countries on Earth when it comes to incarceration rates, and those lobbying to repeal modest reforms are insisting we, in fact, need even more people in prison. Nothing can change this glaring absurdity. No amount of argumentation, graphs, research, studies, or viral videos can alter this manifestly cruel reality. The carceral crowd has won this round, but they will never, ever make this make sense.
There’s always money to be had and careers to be made massaging the cognitive dissonance of guilty white liberals, of negotiating backwards from a position that doesn’t ask them to risk anything, or make any serious sacrifices. They can be “allies” and also support increasing police budgets. They can be “true reformers” by voting to recall progressive prosecutors. Truly, they are told, it’s the detached, academic, Soros Left who are the Real Racists. Mysteriously, supporting all the old policies—longer sentences, more police, more incarceration—that benefit the propertied classes and wealthy donors just so happens to be the Data-Driven Correct Liberal Position. And, we are told, it’s not mutually exclusive to racial justice because, this time, it’s going to be “targeted,” “nuanced,” and, don’t worry, some polls said that black people also want more police. Never mind that our society has starved them of literally any other option to address the scourge of crime in their neighborhoods, never mind that our supposed liberal media drills into them that police are all they’re going to get and that robust social welfare is simply off the table. They’re drowning, and the only lifeline Democrats are throwing them is barbed wire to latch onto—and they checked the box in a Pew questionnaire saying yes, barbed wire will have to do, therefore barbed wire is good and what Actual Black People want. Envisioning any other alternative is unserious posturing by radicals. The old playbook with modest, superficial tweaks will simply have to do. It’s been decided, it’s now time to move on.