In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder is altering Justice Department policy so that some “nonviolent drug offenders” will no longer face “Draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” In New York, Judge Shira Scheindlin has forced a revamping of “stop-and-frisk” — a practice in which police confront people whom they deem to be acting suspiciously. In Boston, mayoral candidates are demanding greater racial and ethnic diversity in the Police Department.
Together, these moves suggest a change in the political winds from tougher policing to alternative objectives — more humane sentences, more dignity on the streets, more racially sensitive policing. This shift comes partly because past efforts to fight crime came at a terrible human cost, and partly because of a broad perception that crime is less of a threat today than it once was.
But pendulum swings from tougher to gentler justice — or vice versa — don’t really help protect public safety. We can only declare victory in the battle against crime when safer streets are also accompanied by smaller prison populations and equitable treatment for minority residents. The challenge for Boston mayoral candidates is how to bring that about.
Racial disparities provide the impetus for Holder’s new policy, Scheindlin’s ruling, and the press for greater diversity in Boston — which is understandable because African-Americans suffer most from both crime and punishment. In recent years, African-Americans were six times more likely to be murdered than whites and 50 percent more likely to have their homes burgled. Is the greater injustice over-punishing African-American perpetrators or under-punishing those who victimize African-Americans? My own research finds that individuals convicted of killing an African-American receive sentences that are typically at least 25 percent shorter than comparable individuals convicted of killing a white victim.
But African-American males are also more than four times more likely than white males to be facing a death sentence and six times more likely to be serving a prison sentence of one year or more. Mass incarceration has undeniably wreaked havoc on poor and minority communities.
Our packed prisons were a reaction to the crime surge of 1970s and the crack epidemic of the late 1980s. As our cities seemed lost to lawlessness, America responded with tough penalties even for minor drug crimes. These efforts weren’t inconsequential. Economist Steven Levitt has found that increased incarceration can explain “one-third of the observed decline in crime” during the 1990s. Between 1994 and 2011, the number of burglaries in the United States dropped by half. Between 1991 and 2008, the homicide victimization rate has dropped by 41 percent for whites and over 50 percent for African-Americans.
As we reform, we should acknowledge some tradeoffs: A large, compelling literature links longer sentences with lower crime rates; Levitt showed that crime rates rose after the ACLU secured mass releases from overcrowded prisons. The benefits of stop-and-frisk are more debatable. The policy may have reduced robbery rates, but the evidence is inconclusive.
And while diversifying police forces is desirable on its own terms, the evidence is mixed on whether it reduces crime — as some of the current mayoral candidates maintain. While Levitt and co-author John Donahue found that “own-race policing” is helpful in fighting property crime, the most compelling recent work suggests that court-mandated police diversity has little impact on crime rates.
None of this means we shouldn’t pursue these changes. Personally, I’d like to see a smaller prison population, less stop-and-frisk, and more diverse police forces — even if, as is the case in Boston, that requires changes in civil service laws that base promotions on written exams. But a new wave of criminal justice policy would understand that we can have both safety and sensitivity — just not on the cheap. Police departments that are stretched too thin either resort to brutality or accept anarchy.
In Boston, current Commissioner Ed Davis’s approach has been a model of tactical experimentation and collaboration with the community. Our mayoral candidates should balance their desire for fairer policing with calls for extra resources for the Boston police — not to be spent on desk jobs or expensive equipment that rarely gets used, but on putting more officers on the beat. Crime rates fall when there are more police officers. Boosting the number of cops in neighborhoods helps ensure that crime stops long before an arrest.