At a Manhattan fundraiser yesterday (as noted by The Hill), potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke of the rioting in Baltimore by invoking a theme of the Obama administration: the need for reform of the criminal justice system.
According to this critique, the current crisis in our cities, in particular focused on violence involving the police and African Americans, has its roots in America’s policies of criminal justice.
Former Secretary of State Clinton insisted that we must “reform our criminal justice system” and, according to The Hill, “made a reference to ending ‘mass incarceration,’ but the specifics were drowned out by applause.”
The charge of “mass incarceration” is often attached to changes in criminal justice sentencing that were put in place in the mid-1990s, and led by political figures such as Vice President Joe Biden, a strong supporter of so-called “three strikes” laws and author (as a senator) of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
It should be remembered that such measures were politically popular during that decade, driven by the striking damage done to our cities (as well as to vulnerable women), by rising crime rates, in particular, crimes of violence. The circumstance has changed for the better so dramatically that current politicians can perhaps be forgiven for losing sight of the problems that such measures were crafted to address.
Reform of unjust laws is a constant duty, but we should not forget the genuine suffering of criminal victims that led to efforts at protecting those at risk. The reality is that the tough laws were put in place for a reason, to shelter those being devastated by crime and drugs and predatory behavior.
Few doubt that a result of the application of those laws, beyond unintended injustices, was that a great deal of predatory behavior was stopped, though as a consequence, incarceration numbers grew accordingly. The intended effect was produced, as the rate of crime fell dramatically and continues downward to this day.
A graph of forcible rapes reported to the police as found in the FBI Uniform Crime Reports can represent the nature of the overall criminal threat, and the impact of sentencing “reform” (as it was called then) has been surely one of the social factors driving this steep decline in crime. As can be seen, the incidence of “forcible rape” was climbing steeply until the time (1993-1995) that the reforms were implemented.
These laws were strong measures, but surely the sense at the time was that they were necessary, given the dangers to which they were the answer. It would be ironic, indeed, if we now, the very beneficiaries of the decline of violent crime were to reverse such conditions, in the hope of applause.
An implication of falling crime is that America is unlikely to see a continuation of the rate of incarceration from those years, simply because the number of committed crimes has dropped so greatly. When crime falls, incarceration should level off, and then decline as a result. That is, in some respects, we could be on the verge of harvesting the benefits from those laws, and even entering a period where the number of incarcerations will decline.
Further, because the impact of violent crime has fallen so steeply, we might even see that necessary and long-sought “structural reforms” of our inner cities (jobs, better schools, strengthened family formation), might begin to gain traction.
Yet because the political pressure behind the imposition of those laws has declined first, we could be on the verge of making a tragic mistake, by carelessly reversing the very steps that made vulnerable neighborhoods safer. Whatever new “reforms” we undertake now, we must take heed lest we re-start the original conditions of crisis, simply to serve political opportunism, often from the very people who called for the initial intervention.
To sum up, it is possible to argue that faced with a threat, we made an intervention, and to a large degree that intervention worked, albeit at considerable social cost. Now is not the time to abandon those efforts. If proto-candidate Clinton and her allies succeed in an effort to abandon effective law enforcement in our cities, very soon, no one will be applauding.
Walters and Murray direct Hudson Institute's Center for Substance Abuse Policy Research. They both served in the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the George W. Bush administration.