We’ve had the Ferguson riots, we’ve had the Baltimore riots, some think other American cities are due for the same treatment, racial tensions are high, and the country is once more debating what to do about poverty, educational deficiency, drugs, crime and hopelessness.
Here is a thought. Police, who are accused of being much of the problem, could be a big part of the answer.
Start by looking at officers in New York City, who brought down crime significantly and impressively compared to the rest of the nation during a stretch of extraordinary reshaping of how they operated. Through varied deterrent strategies – mostly putting scads of cops where the crime was happening – police saved thousands from being murdered, robbed or beaten and thousands more from going to prison because they were deprived of their chance to commit a crime.
It has been no small thing for poor, minority neighborhoods that they have become much safer, making tomorrow more likely for everyone while encouraging old businesses to stay and new businesses to come. It has been no small thing, either, that huge chunks of the city’s population haven’t been shipped off to prisons where large numbers can whet their criminal expertise and obtain records that vastly lessen the prospect of tolerable futures.
Too many other states and cities figure the answer to crime is to skimp on preventing it even if they do search out the guilty after the fact. They also lessen judicial discretion, make sentences tortuously long for relatively minor acts and spend ungodly amounts of money on building prisons, maintaining them and housing guests who hardly pay for the privilege. Add it up and what you have is an egregious American excess – by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, more than a couple of million behind bars, and a cost of something like $80 billion a year.
Politicians in both parties are taking note. Just recently, we had Hillary Clinton pronouncing as a Democratic presidential candidate that sending so many to prison heightens unemployment – it’s 21 percent among blacks in Baltimore – and consigns millions to poverty. Her points are legit, as are those of Republicans concerned about the issue, such as Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich.
Their takes are not all exactly the same but include such ideas as lesser consequences for some nonviolent crimes, an end of mandatory minimum sentences and more rehabilitation for drug offenders.
That’s good, but don’t stop there. Pay attention to what Mayor Rudy Giuliani started in New York, that Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued and that Mayor Bill de Blasio has messed with some even if it is not entirely clear yet whether he has gone too far. It is true that what works one place will not always work as well in another, but Franklin Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley law professor who exhaustively studied the city’s enforcement techniques, has said he thinks the city can be a model for others, especially in having police use data to focus on places where crime is most rampant.
Considering that African-American men constitute 40 percent of those locked up in federal, state and local facilities, advances on this issue could make a considerable difference suffering minority communities, though no one, of course, would say that’s enough, that’s it, we’ve solved the problem.
There’s so much else to do, such as allowing no excuses for community-devastating riots while at the same time trying out some bold, fresh ideas for lessening poverty. We need better schools. We need leadership that addresses single-parent homes that can be unending hardship for the parent and, in some situations, a major disadvantage for the children. And, while recognizing the good police do, we should do more to guard against the worst.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.