With all the adulation from the left toward Hillary Clinton for her recent speech (excerpt, below) on crime, the most telling- and significant- may have come from Slate's Leon Neyfakh, who writes
In pegging her remarks about mass incarceration to the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and making a point of calling for both prison and police reform in the same breath, Clinton was making a nontrivial connection between unfair law enforcement practices and unfair prison policy. And while that connection may seem self-evident to some, the fact is that politicians often treat them as separate issues, and many influential figures on the right who have come out as criminal justice reformers—including Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, and the mega-donors Charles and David Koch—have not been willing to make the link.
Clinton, on the other hand, made the connection deliberately and clearly: Over the course of her roughly 3,500-word speech, she put forth a wide-ranging argument suggesting that the solution to America’s criminal justice crisis will not just be a matter of rolling back overly harsh sentencing guidelines or creating treatment programs for nonviolent drug offenders—measures that enjoy relatively broad support on the right—but addressing the broken trust between black communities and the police departments that are supposed to protect them. “Today smart policing in communities that builds relationships, partnerships, and trust makes more sense than ever,” Clinton said. “And it shouldn’t be limited just to officers on the beat. It’s an ethic that should extend throughout our criminal justice system. To prosecutors and parole officers. To judges and lawmakers.”
Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute of Justice, laments that while "the left and right have banded together to deal with mass incarceration.... you don't see the same degree of robust joining together on policing." Neyfakh adds
Van Jones, the liberal activist who helped organize the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform alongside Gingrich, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Koch Industries, told me much the same thing—that for all the air time prison reform is currently enjoying in conservative circles, policing tends not to come up.
“The bipartisan space right now focuses on what happens after a person gets arrested, not why the person got arrested,” Jones said. “So it’s: Are the sentences too long? Are the conditions of confinement conducive to rehabilitation? When someone comes home and re-enters society, can they get a fair shot? But there’s not a lot of bipartisan discussion at this stage about doing something about why people are being arrested, or the way they’re being arrested. There’s a big bipartisan sinkhole that’s growing and pulling everything into it, but policing has not yet fallen into it.”
To get a conservative take on the move Clinton made in her speech, I called former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served three years in federal prison for tax fraud and making false statements before being released and remaking himself as a criminal justice reformer. “I think it’s two different issues,” Kerik told me. “I don’t think the police is a part of the criminal justice problem as much as … the courts and the laws. That’s a much bigger problem than the police. Mandatory minimums, our sentencing guidelines—that’s the problem.”
Kerik, who has compared prison to “dying with your eyes open,” added: “The cops go to a community to enforce the laws that have been written. That’s why they’re there. If it’s a minority community and there’s high crime, they’re going there because there’s high crime. They’re going to enforce the laws on the books. … When you talk about the racial disparities in incarceration, a lot of that doesn’t have to do with the police, it has to do with the laws themselves.”
Evidently, Kerik has closed his eyes to racial disparities in stop and frisk and traffic stops, as well as to the crushing impact upon poor black communities of aggressive enforcement of (alleged) misdemeanor offenses. Alexandra Natapoff explains
as former Baltimore cop and now-sociology professor Peter Moskos describes in his book Cop in the Hood, Baltimore police warn people to move on and arrest them for loitering when they don’t. The problem is that the crime of loitering is defined as “interfering, impeding, or hindering the free passage of pedestrian or vehicular traffic after receiving a warning.” A person who merely fails to move when ordered to move by a police officer is not actually guilty, but thousands of arrestsoccur in Baltimore on this basis every year. The same is reportedly true in New York.
But leave it up to Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries, to encapsulate the "englightened," yet false narrative favored by the powerful. when he
indicated in an emailed statement that while he acknowledges the distrust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they police, repairing that distrust is a matter of making changes to the way we prosecute people who break the law, not necessarily changing police practices.
“I think the whole CJ system is interconnected,” Holden wrote, noting that his remarks should not be seen as a response to the Clinton speech. “[We should] reform the CJ system so police can enhance public safety by going after violent criminals, instead of having them deal with all the issues we don’t want to deal with like mentally ill people, drug addicts, homeless, low level drug offenders. Our brave law enforcement officers signed up to protect and serve these communities but instead we have set up a system that puts them in perpetual conflict with the communities they serve. It isn’t right and it isn’t working. Our law enforcement and our communities deserve better.”
The right is not about to come around- or even compromise- on the matter of law enforcement, as reflected in Steve M.'s insight into the contrast of the right's attacks on most public sector unions and its silence about police unions:
Teachers' unions are supposedly too powerful, but that alleged power hasn't prevented conservatives (and phony liberals) from mounting multiple assaults on unionized schools: vouchers, charter schools, homeschooling, generous tax breaks for private school tuition, and so on. Where are the comparable efforts to undermine police unions? Wouldn't clever right-wing think-tankers be dreaming up all sorts of alternatives to unionized police forces if right-wingers didn't like cops as much as they do? Why aren't we talking about, say, a privatized parallel system of policing, something that would, y'know, disrupt unionized police forces? The awesome power of teachers' unions doesn't deter the right from concocting such schemes, so it can't be unionization that's deterring conservatives in the case of cops.
Why do cops go unchallenged? Let's look at a few other institutions where we utterly lack the national will to regulated or deter misconduct. Think of Wall Street -- the guys there don't have unions, yet we do nothing when their conduct is outrageous. Look at rape in the military, or among college athletes -- we don't want to punish those guys either, and they don't have unions.
All the institutions I've just named have something in common with the police: They're overwhelmingly male cultures that represent what conservatives consider the best of traditional masculinity. (And you could add that they're cultures believed to be antithetical to liberalism, which makes them even more admirable to conservatives.) We're reluctant to hold the bad actors in these cultures responsible for their crimes because we think they're real men, and only wussy metrosexual liberals are unmoved by their real maleness.
While Hillary Clinton's speech on crime was deficient- and far less bold than has been assumed- she at least seems to understand the importance of restoring community-police relations and, somewhat, the role of police tactics in repairing that relationship, and so was more than we'll get from any GOP nominee. "Her timely speech on mass incarceration was a good start," remarks Isquith, who is two-thirds right. It was timely and a start, though "good" is a bit generous.
Next up: Mrs. Clinton is right. She "doesn't know all the answers."