Last Wednesday, August 10 marked the launch of a new bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative: the Coalition for Public Safety, led by former adviser to President Trump Ja’Ron Smith. Drawing a welcome distinction between his group and some of the more radical elements of the criminal justice reform movement, Smith tweeted that the Coalition would seek to “reduce violent crime” and work “to adequately fund the police”.
As serious violent crimes – homicides and shootings, in particular – increase in many parts of the country (and in some cases even exceed the peaks of the 1990s), it is refreshing to see reform organizations like the Coalition grant priority to our public safety issue. His efforts are particularly welcome given the past few years of criminal justice policymaking, which have been marked by misguided efforts to defund the police, restrict the prosecution of officers, elect prosecutors who unilaterally seek to repeal duly enacted legislation and pursue decarceration through bail and other penalties. reforms based on the belief that the United States suffers from “mass incarceration”.
However, as recent reform efforts have shown, good intentions are not always synonymous with sound policy. Ensuring that the police are properly funded is a necessary condition for public safety, but it is insufficient. A true comprehensive security strategy also requires recognition of the role played by law enforcement and, in support of police efforts, a criminal justice system dedicated to incapacitating dangerous offenders.
A review of the Coalition’s literature suggests a fundamental unease with the approaches to law enforcement that a full recovery from the resurgence of crime may eventually require. For example, a recent Fox News article covering the announcement of the Coalition’s launch highlighted this passage from the group’s statement of principles: “Every minute [the police] spend on revenue-generating activities is a minute they don’t spend solving or preventing serious crimes. The article goes on to note that the statement “argues that police officers are too often bogged down by non-criminal calls, traffic incidents, and mental health incidents,” which prevent them “from focusing their time and their resources on fighting violent crime.
This idea poses several problems. Let’s start with the application of the highway code. The suggestion that such efforts are mere “income generating activities” is deeply flawed. It ignores substantial evidence linking reductions in police-led traffic enforcement to increases in vehicle collisions and traffic-related deaths. The implicit call to reduce the importance of traffic law enforcement in order to maximize violent crime efforts also ignores how contacts initiated as a result of traffic violations often lead to the discovery of contraband and warrants, which serves public safety. In New York, for example, more than 42% of all firearm arrests in 2020 were made during vehicle stops.
When it comes to mental health incidents, it is simply unrealistic to completely, or even substantially, shift responsibility for the response to the police, as my Manhattan Institute colleague Charles Fain Lehman recently noted in a thorough examination of the evidence.
On the issue of bail and pre-trial detention, the Coalition’s webpage states that it wants to “[p]promoted the use of transparent, validated and non-discriminatory risk-based solutions to replace purely monetary bond systems that discriminate against the poor and do not provide an adequate public safety return. Yet its New York homepage makes no mention of the fact that New York is the only state that legally prohibits judges from considering a defendant’s public safety risk in any aspect of any decision relating to provisional release. This page does, however, include criticisms of the “bail industry”, a defense of The Bail Project (which has secured the release of violent repeat offenders), as well as a defense of state bail reform, including the enactment was followed by a 25% increase in the share of violent crime arrests made by people with open cases.
The Coalition has a web page for each of the states in which it currently works. At the top of each is a tally of prison, prison, and correctional populations, along with each state’s correctional rate and share of the budget spent on corrections. No other data is included, neither the number of police officers, nor the number of homicides, nor the number of other violent victimizations. This content and other content on the website suggests that the Coalition will measure success primarily by the degree of decarceration in these jurisdictions rather than improvements in the state of public safety.
There is no problem in pursuing reforms of an imperfect system. There are indeed subsets of the American prison and prison populations for whom incarceration serves no legitimate penological purpose. But there are also people who should be behind bars but aren’t, which is an issue any organization dedicated to public safety must be prepared to deal with. Among the questions I hope Coalition leaders will answer is how they balance their focus on decarceration with their dedication to improving public safety, especially since so much violence serious are already motivated by those who have received several “second chances”, to use an expression from the list of political priorities of the Coalition. And I remind readers that recent reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that, on average, those released from state prison had accumulated about ten prior arrests and five prior convictions. before their last incarceration. These figures suggest that the vast majority of people incarcerated today are higher risk offenders than those who, according to a mixed body of evidence, can be safely diverted from correctional settings.
Public safety is the most important asset of any neighborhood, and its provision is the first duty of government. This asset has now been eroding for years – a development that has coincided with sharp reductions in the country’s prison and prison population. Reclaiming public safety must begin with an openness to the possibility that these trends are linked.