Magical Thinking, Moral Outrage—and Pragmatic Policymaking

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Franklin Cruz

Franklin Cruz

The litany of people of color killed by police this month has resembled a terrible and tragic movie played on fast forward, worsened only by shootings of police officers—a misguided form of retaliation and vengeance rendered against public servants whose call to duty every day is to protect the public.

With each incident, the nation’s emotional temperature rises. But it’s important to remember that it is how we act and respond now as a country—as community members, policymakers, practitioners in the justice system, and as researchers and “experts”—that will ultimately test whether we have the force of will to truly stand as one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

For over a decade, I worked at a public defender office in New York City, alongside lawyers, social workers, investigators, paralegals, community organizers, and administrative staff dedicated to the zealous defense of our clients. We repeatedly heard stories that were uniquely painful and tragic—and yet uncannily similar and distressing.

I came from that experience with a great deal of skepticism about how and whether justice was truly being served in our legal system.

Since then, I have worked across the country to improve the administration of justice and have developed a more balanced and complete picture of our legal system. Certainly, there are those who violate our public trust. Yet, there are also the many who act in good faith to render justice fairly and equitably, even if they do not always succeed.


Photo by reynermedia via Flickr

The events this month have made maintaining a balanced perspective very challenging for me, especially as someone who has worked his entire career to uphold social justice and as a member of the communities of color to which many of the police-shooting victims—like Raul Saavedra-Vargas, Anthony Nuñez, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Pedro Villanueva—belong.

Yet, I have come to realize that these emotions are precisely what should fuel our thinking about change and reform.

Let’s allow our anger, frustration, and exasperation to drive our creativity in imagining how our legal systems could better serve justice and elevate the practices of the best people who wear the badges, don the robes, and carry the case files.

We can only (re)build a system that is just and fair by having the fortitude, moral character and courage to be driven by our deep belief in justice and using their examples to shape our vision of what a justice system can be in the United States.

As we watch our two national party conventions, we look for concrete and sustainable solutions. Yet, if the platforms are any indication, we will not find them.

The Republican platform asserts that “citizen vigilance, tough but fair prosecutors, meaningful sentences, protection of victims’ rights, and limits on judicial discretion can preserve public safety by keeping criminals off the street.” It describes restorative justice as a fundamental principle of that approach: “[prisons] should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.”

Where the Republic platform does not discuss race, the Democratic platform affirms that Democrats are “inspired” by criminal justice efforts “that directly address the discriminatory treatment of [people of color] to rebuild trust in the criminal justice system.”

A Democratic administration promises to “invest in training for officers on issues such as de-escalation and the appropriate use of force, and encourage better police-community relations and the use of smart strategies like police body cameras.” They will end racial profiling. They will invest less in incarceration and more in reentry.

Moreover, Democrats will “remove barriers to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully re-enter society” and “prioritize treatment over incarceration in tackling addiction and substance use disorder.”

But both platforms contain a central flaw. While the ideas may sound right, the calls for change are almost clinical in their detachment and empty as true policy solutions because they lack any detail or commitment about how systems and cultures will fundamentally be transformed and held accountable for outcomes. They need to be fleshed out.

The agencies that make up our criminal legal system, for example, do not work in unison and often do not reflect cultures that promote outcomes that align with what we might call just and fair if we truly took a step back and considered them. Voters need to ask how they intend to support inter-agency cooperation and internal culture change.

The same is true of the call for “tough but fair prosecutors,” which is hollow without the inclusion of incentives by the U.S. Justice Department to encourage prosecutors to open their offices to objective and transparent review of their work. Prosecutors are rewarded for trials won and convictions secured, but how are they rewarded for “fairness?” How are chief prosecutors holding themselves and their offices accountable to the highest standards of fairness? How is the community served doing the same?

Law enforcement, of course, has been center stage in the call for reform. Use of de-escalation techniques, appropriate use of force, and better police-community relations are all essential. Yet, what does the culture and system within which police officers operate promote and discourage? How are supervisors chosen? To whom are commendations (or disciplinary warnings made)?

What values do these police departments message to their leadership and their frontline officers every day? Training does not change the foundation of these systems. Attending a community meeting does not repair the broken trust between a community and law enforcement.

Our sense of moral outrage and our call for meaningful and lasting change are complementary. They challenge us all to undertake the difficult and creative exercise of re-imagining criminal justice in our country – a re-imagining that is not confined by what we experience as the legal system today but that is driven by what we believe and know to be the ideals of justice.

Albert Einstein used this method of “thought experiments” to revolutionize our understanding of the universe. If Einstein can shift our understanding about the universe, certainly we can do the same for justice. If we do not look beyond the limitations of our own biases, hopelessness, and understanding of what is realistic, we will fail to prevent July 2016 from ever happening again.

If we do not re-imagine and push for change now, we will simply have another task force forming six months from now or a year from now, recommending the same standard responses we hear today and have heard for decades.

Franklin Cruz is a senior manager and program director at a national, non-profit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice.  Prior to his current policy and technical assistance work, Franklin spent over a decade as a manager at a public defender office in Bronx, NY. He welcomes comments from readers.

One thought on “Magical Thinking, Moral Outrage—and Pragmatic Policymaking

  1. A great, small, step in the direction of criminal justice reform. Just like the platforms of the two parties however, what is listed here is a somewhat longer list of generalities. The structural reform that is needed requires a more specific outline of what to change and how. This is a very timely, and long overdue, subject. I for one am ready to participate in a dialog with the goal of presenting concrete proposals to deal with every aspect of the criminal justice system……from early childhood issues of prevention to the ultimate sanction of the death penalty.

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