Few individuals outside of the music editorial realm consider Rolling Stone a reliable source of journalistic content. In recent years the publication’s rank amateurism has been made patently evident in its coverage of the nation’s criminal justice system. Whether a quixotic exercise in the apologetics of a butcher or whole-cloth fabrication of a serious crime, the magazine has managed to persistently reestablish “rock bottom.”
There was little surprise, then, when a piece entitled “Policing is a Dirty Job, But Nobody’s Gotta Do It: 6 Ideas for a Cop-Free World” appeared in mid-December. Author José Martín, the writer who brought you an impassioned defense of arson and destruction, suggests six policies and programs that would eliminate the need for law officers.
Superficially, a few of these suggestions have merit. Some are even empirically supported and actively advocated by conservative reform efforts. However, it takes little more than a cursory glance to see that Martín’s advocacy for these reforms is based more on their view through a filter—one established by clinging to a pre-established narrative—than upon any critical reading.
Unarmed Mediation and Intervention Teams
The first suggestion Martín offers is to employ boots-on-the-ground mediators, much like those used in New York or Detroit: “Unarmed but trained people, often formerly violent offenders themselves, patrolling their neighborhoods to curb violence right where it starts.” This means employing and training scores of well-respected individuals from high-crime neighborhoods and, in the event of an incident, deploy them to “cool down” the situation to prevent retaliation.
This is, at best, a naïve reading of the genesis and efficacy of streetworker programs. Simple streetworker programs have not been shown to reduce crime. In fact, an evaluation of the SNUG program in New York—the very one Martín touts—found that crime was wholly reduced in only of the five program sites; the one with the second-worst adherence to the program’s model. To say this outperforms simple random variation is an indefensibly charitable analysis.
Perhaps the grand irony of this suggestion is that the only instances where the streetworker strategy has been part of a notable drop in crime is when they are a tertiary approach to a focused deterrence policing initiative like CeaseFire or CIRV. These programs focus the resources and efforts of law enforcement on serious offenders and have been shown to improve public safety when used in very high-crime areas. Streetworker strategies “work” because of, not in lieu of, the police.
Decriminalizing Almost Every Crime
“There is no real conversation about what constitutes a crime and what permits society to put a person in chains and a cage.” This idea has some merit. While Martín belies his credibility on the issue by saying this is discussed “only in critical criminology seminars,” many groups from across the ideological spectrum are coming together to oppose the over-criminalization.
Ohio has recently adopted a default mens rea provision, mandating that outside of strict liability offenses, legislators must establish the degree of mental culpability that one must possess before being found guilty of new crime. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a modicum of disdain toward over-criminalization, as evidenced in the oral arguments in Yates v. United States. However, simply because there are too many laws or they currently do not function as intended does not mean that law per se is no longer in full use.
It should be noted that an anti-overcriminalization agenda would weaken the coercive efficacy of the state—the very entity of which Martín and his ilk are so fond.
“From hippie communes to the IRA and anti-Apartheid South African guerrillas to even some U.S. cities like Philadelphia’s experiment with community courts, spaces are created where accountability is understood as a community issue.” Again, a topic area capable of bearing fruit, if it were not for its billing as a community-based panacea.
Restorative justice programs can be effective in reducing recidivism in certain types of offences for certain types of offenders, but cannot be seen as an exhaustive approach to justice. Selection bias, ignoring risk, and selective application of due process make it a terrible primary model of reaching the most just outcome, but make it an effective tool for handling a small subset of cases.
Where Martín misses the mark is that participation in restorative justice programming must be voluntary for all parties. Coercing a victim or offender into mediation is far more harmful than any formal proceedings. Imagine: a rape victim being forced to confront her assailant and hear, in vivid detail, why he chose to force himself upon her. Conversely, imagine a wrongfully-accused individual being forced to answer for a crime he or she did not commit, in which no evidence exists outside of a made-up story and a vociferous mob. And what is to be done when one of the parties fails to abide by the mediated agreement?
Perhaps it is of little surprise that Rolling Stone would support a wholesale adoption of this type of inquisitorial system.
Direct Democracy at the Community Level
Martín suggests that political engagement will reduce crime as marginalized parties would now have “a sense of purpose”: “A more healthy political culture where people feel more involved is a powerful building block to a less violent world.” If the relationship between crime and political self-efficacy were so, would not the crime rate have been on a persistent decline since African-Americans were given their due right to vote? Would white-collar crime exist?
Sadly, neither are so because political engagement is not what drives individual criminal offending. Decades of research into the risk factors of criminal behavior have shown that antisocial personality traits, beliefs, and associates make up most of an individual’s propensity to offend while loosely-specified grand sociological constructs make up very little.
Political integration is a good thing on the whole. Just do not think that it will at all directly influence the crime rate.
Mental Health Care
“We have created a tremendous amount of mental illness, and in the real debt and austerity dystopia we’re living in, we have refused to treat each other for our physical and mental wounds.” Few disagree that we have a mental health-care problem in the United States. Few also disagree that noncriminal, seriously affected individuals in crisis often end up in the hands of the criminal justice system.
However, a myopic conclusion to reach from these facts, as many activists often do, is that mental health routinely triggers criminal behavior. Ergo, once mental health is no longer a concern, crime rates will drop precipitously. While this would hold true for a minute segment of the criminal population with severe mental health issues, it would not eliminate crime and thereby obviate the need for police officers. A recent study estimated that no more than 17 percent of mentally ill offenders are incarcerated due to actions that closely follow the symptoms of their diagnosis. It is the most pernicious of fallacies to think that one is criminal simply because of his mental illness.
This type of fanciful thinking with only the most rudimentary of analyses shows why the Left has abdicated so much of its credibility in discussing criminal justice reform. Not once in the article’s 900-plus words did the words “public safety” appear. Activists of this persuasion see no problem with an individual who assaults an elderly person, sexually abuses children, or murders in cold blood. Alas, it the system that pushes people act as they do. Even when pressed, the best one could expect from the social-justice community is a begrudging acceptance of Durkheimian anomie and strain theory.
What Happens When Communities Don’t Work?
Heavy in bombast and rhetoric and short on justification, Martín’s suggested reforms have a façade of legitimacy built up around little substance. His article can be easily boiled down to “how to live without police: everybody cooperate to enforce social norms.” As simple and placating as that may be, the author fails to explore what happens in instances where communities, or even large swaths of one community, are at odds in normative values or how to address violations thereof. It is a system that allows—no, mandates—vendetta, vigilantism, and (actual) capricious use of force. These are not hallmarks of an evolved society, but a descent into barbarism.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are burdened with the precarious task of ensuring justice to all parties and protecting the public safety, all while doing so at reasonable costs. Groups like Right on Crime are leading the way in the states, showing legislators there are policy options that can save money, lower crime, and even get rid of costly, unused prison space. The policies Right on Crime and similar groups advocate are evidence-based and oriented towards principle. To seriously advocate that the police are no longer necessary because alternatives exist is an unsophisticated argument, indeed.