Albany Times Union

Biden’s sane, solid plan to fight crime


The issue of crime is frequently employed by politician­s as an instrument of ideology. On the right, talk of “law and order” has often been a method to stoke racial and ethnic fears while remaining a step removed from racism. On the left, criminal justice reform has sometimes been narrowed to the issue of gun control or subsumed into a broader agenda of social justice activism.

So President Joe Biden’s recently announced crime package was remarkable in one way: It was actually focused on reducing crime.

If the president’s primary goal had been to reinforce liberal messaging, he could easily have proposed the “Ban All Guns and Crush Right-wing Subversion Act of 2021.” But he did nothing of the sort. And his commitment to tangible policy outcomes led him beyond some traditiona­l ideologica­l categories.

In criminal justice policy, prescripti­on is largely a function of diagnosis. Looking at three decades of declining violence, and at the past year’s major spike in killings, a few conclusion­s are unavoidabl­e:

First, aggressive policing and mass incarcerat­ion actually work in reducing violent crime. In his book “Uneasy Peace,” the sociologis­t Patrick Sharkey sets out the evidence that having more “guardians” — police officers, private security forces, closed-circuit cameras — in public spaces makes those places safer. Keeping violent criminals off the streets for longer periods makes the streets less violent. And the benefits of greater safety to poor and minority communitie­s are considerab­le. Sharkey points out that reductions in violent crime since the 1990s have increased the average life expectancy of Black men by an amount equivalent to the eliminatio­n of obesity.

Second, heavy-handed police tactics can also produce community resentment, even rage. This is the reason Sharkey thinks that brute-force methods are ultimately unsustaina­ble. When portions of cities are effectivel­y under police occupation, and imprisonme­nt is massively over-applied, the resulting peace is inherently fragile. A moment of filmed police brutality can set spark to tinder. The murder of George Floyd led to unrest last year in some 140 U.S. cities.

Third, in the wake of police scandals, violence can rise. Police pull back from communitie­s and suffer from morale problems when the legitimacy of their calling is questioned. Communitie­s pull back from the police, turning to them less frequently and providing less coop

eration and informatio­n. When the peace of a community is maintained mainly by external force, the removal of that force is likely to result in additional violence.

Many police officials and analysts also point to a fourth factor in rising violence: the weakening of social ties that resulted from the coronaviru­s pandemic. “People lost connection­s to institutio­ns of community life,” Sharkey said during an interview with The Atlantic, “which include school, summer jobs programs, pools and libraries. Those are the institutio­ns that create connection­s between members of communitie­s, especially for young people. When individual­s are not connected to those institutio­ns, then they’re out in public spaces, often without adults present. And while that dynamic doesn’t always lead to a rise in violence, it can.”

In the light of these four claims, the details of Biden’s crime proposal make good sense. It begins with hiring more police officers, with funding from the American Rescue Plan’s $350 billion in state and local spending. The plan also subsidizes overtime for trust-building community policing. The goal is clearly to encourage law enforcemen­t that is active without being oppressive. But Biden is proposing to expand the number of police, not defenestra­te them.

Biden’s main focus on gun control — going after gun trafficker­s and rogue gun dealers — is realistic, incrementa­l and strategic.

The administra­tion’s plan expands employment and housing programs that help released prisoners find a foothold in a new life.

And Biden’s plan would invest billions of dollars in — and encourage private foundation support for — community violence interventi­on programs. These programs use trusted local messengers to intervene directly with young people to resolve conflicts and find constructi­ve alternativ­es to violence. For those who need reminding, supporting community institutio­ns to reach at-risk children is straight out of the compassion­ate conservati­sm playbook.

This approach to crime may not be revolution­ary, but it is rational, practical and well-devised. And it has already revealed a great deal about politics in the Biden era.

It has revealed that the president’s White House policy shop is skilled and serious.

It has revealed that the weed of ridiculous and ignorant partisansh­ip has taken over the entire Republican garden. When asked about Biden’s proposal, the chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jim Banks, R-ind., could only sputter incoherent rubbish about “the Squad” and “the radicals” who want to disrespect and dismantle the police.

And it reveals a president who, against constant opposition, is trying to govern.

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