Greenwich Time (Sunday)
What Conn. learned about the politics of crime in 2022
What people think about crime doesn’t often mesh with reality.
Polls show majorities believe that it’s rising when it’s falling. They think they’re in danger when they’re not. Most suburbanites in Connecticut do not experience street crime on a regular basis, if ever, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t scared of it.
All that has led to decades of public policy that attempt the same remedies over and over, which we know are of limited value and have devastating side effects. This country locks up its citizens at a rate that would make embarrass authoritarian regimes. Black people are far more likely to be imprisoned, which has nothing to do with who is more or less likely to commit crimes. The effects on families, neighborhoods and entire cities of enmeshing millions of people in the criminal justice system to no discernible purpose has been devastating.
And yet the push from certain quarters whenever crime arises as a political concern is to do more of the same. Longer sentences, less mercy, and forget about second chances. We keep doing what we’ve always done, even as the result of those policies is that crime remains stubbornly high in this country compared to other rich nations, albeit lower than it was a generation ago.
The least we should expect from political leaders is an honest depiction of reality. Don’t tell us crime is rising when it isn’t. Don’t try to make people scared for your personal gain. And don’t pretend to care about places that really are beset with street crime even as you ignore them when it’s not politically advantageous.
All of that, though, is usually too much to ask, and so we had a major push from the ultimately fruitless campaign of state Republicans this year to focus on crime as a major issue. It was part of a national movement, and it wasn’t a purely partisan issue, as one of the major proponents of the idea that everyone is always in danger was the Democratic mayor of New York City (still one of the safest places in America, by many standards).
The fruitlessness of those Connecticut efforts, however, is worth noting.
There are many reasons Republicans keep losing in Connecticut. There are more Democrats here, to start with. The direction of the national parties does not favor the GOP, and Connecticut’s highly educated populace works in favor of the party that’s not pushing weird conspiracy theories all the time.
Crime, then, was sort of a lastditch effort for Republicans in search of an issue. They likely would have lost anyway, but their efforts to scare the state into voting out incumbents didn’t work. That’s an important marker.
Connecticut was something of an outlier in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests in 2020 in that it took real action aimed at police overreach. The accountability enforcement measures it passed were among the few concrete actions nationwide that passed before the inevitable backlash led politicians to shy away from anything that could change the status quo.
As such, the Police Accountability Act could have been ripe for a backlash of its own. As the same time, Connecticut passed its version of a Clean Slate law, which wipes out the criminal histories of people who committed certain nonviolent crimes after a number of years out of prison without any other problems. That could have been a problem for proponents, but it never developed.
The Clean Slate rollout has not been free of problems. Implementation has been slowed by what state leaders say are technology concerns and other issues, leading to what advocates fear could be a lack of trust that the law will ever be put into place as intended. Regular updates from the state on the status of implementation should be expected.
But while there were some hints that Clean Slate would be used against incumbents who voted for it, nothing much developed in that regard. Proponents should take note — supporting policies that help people, rather than continuing the same failed “tough on crime” policies that generate noise year after year, doesn’t have to be electoral poison. There is room, in a place like Connecticut, for policies that try a different approach.
Toward the end of the gubernatorial campaign, with Gov. Ned Lamont seemingly in control of the race, his opponent attempted in a debate to link the police accountability law to the then-recent killings of two Bristol police officers. Lamont had one of the few moments when his affability seemed to falter, calling the attack the “cheapest grandstanding imagined.”
He was right. There was no link, and it was only desperation that led anyone to think otherwise.
So-called “tough on crime” policies don’t reduce crime. If they did, we’d be the safest nation in the world. Rejecting those policies has always seemed electorally dangerous, because fear is such a powerful weapon. Connecticut’s experience in 2022 could show there is a better way.