On Monday, federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin issued a 198-page opinion that eviscerated the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk practices. Later that day, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. In the wake of all this, Jennifer Gonnerman asks an interesting question in a good blog post over at New York magazine: Is this the beginning of the end of the tough-on-crime era?
"Both Scheindlin's decision and Holder's speech seem to send the same message: Our nation's myopic approach to crime control - our single-minded obsession with 'tough-on-crime' policies - needs to stop," writes Gonnerman. "Holder jettisoned the old phrase 'tough on crime,' replacing it instead with 'smart on crime.' Perhaps this slogan will stick, and instead of fear-driven crime policies, we'll wind up with a criminal-justice system that is more fair, that no longer robs some citizens of their constitutional rights - or locks them up with unjust sentences - in the name of public safety."
But I'm not quite as optimistic that we're facing a sea change in criminal justice policy.
As Gonnerman notes, the increase in NYPD stop-and-frisks over the last several years can be at least partially attributed to the way that superior officers consistently pressured their subordinates to meet unofficial arrest or summons quotas. This happened because of CompStat, a statistics-intensive policing program that, among other things, makes it easier to hold commanding officers responsible for failing to lower crime in their precincts. Accountability is not a bad thing on its own. However, in practice, "lowering crime" often equates to "making lots of arrests," and, since CompStat was instituted, NYPD officers have reported increased pressure to do just that, no matter how petty the offense.
Scheindlin's decision does little to address the broader stat-driven mentality that encourages police officers to make low-impact, low-level stops and arrests simply because they look good on paper. As long as programs like CompStat continue to proliferate - and they're popping up all over the country - rank-and-file cops will keep feeling the pressure to make numbers, and thus continue to bring people into the justice system.
Gonnerman also accurately notes that New York State's infamous "Rockefeller drug laws" - which established harsh mandatory minimums for people caught with small amounts of drugs and that have since been reformed - were at least partially conceived because then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller thought a tough-on-crime reputation might aid an eventual run for the White House. As far as I can tell, no one has ever lost an election for being too tough on crime. Most prosecutors aren't looking to run for president, but they are going to run for other offices, and they will always be forced to run on their records. A record that includes plenty of tough sentences is easier to tout and defend than a record filled with decline-to-prosecutes.
Finally, tough-on-crime policies often derive from ghastly, well-publicized incidents that seem to require a forceful, immediate governmental response. In 2012, Massachusetts became the most recent state to pass a three-strikes law, after police officer John Maguire was killed by a habitual offender. If liberal Massachusetts is still passing three-strikes laws as late as 2012, then I'm not sure I buy the notion that sweeping, significant change is just over the horizon. It's no longer a political death sentence to talk about criminal justice reform. But we're still a long way away from saying America is ready to stop being so tough on crime.
Justin Peters writes Slate's crime blog.