Several of the justice reforms advocated by Democrats running for president could fuel a new crime wave, claims a critic writing in the conservative National Review.
Proposals by front-runner candidates to reduce by 50 percent the number of people incarcerated in the U.S., eliminate private prisons and curtail mandatory-minimum sentences reflect arguments of reformers to make the system “less punitive,” wrote Barry Latzer, an emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
But, he added in an article appearing in the runup to the Feb. 22 Nevada Democratic caucuses, there’s little evidence that their ideas would gain widespread public support—while they risk fueling an increase in crime.
Justice issues are likely to surface during the candidates’ debate scheduled Feb. 19.
“The risk in the Democrats’ leniency approach is that it may fuel another crime wave, a long-term crime boom, such as the terrible ordeal the country endured from the late 1960s to the early 1990s,” argued Latzer, author of The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America (2016).
While acknowledging that there were other factors responsible for the crime increase beginning in the 1960s, Latzer maintained that a reduction in arrests and imprisonments during that period caused “the weakening” of the system, which in turn led to an upsurge in crime.
Latzer said crime reduction did not appear to be a priority for the leading left-of-center Democratic candidates—Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
“(They) are not terribly interested in the traditional concern with reducing crime rates and protecting the public from criminal assaults (with the exception of female victims of rape and domestic violence),” he wrote.
“Rather, they would take steps to ‘reform’ the criminal justice system — making it less punitive.”
Latzer conceded this was “understandable,” since violent crime rates have fallen 51 percent since 1991. But he contended that the “aggressive approach” to further cutbacks in a period of what he called “retrenchment in criminal justice,” would face an uphill battle against opponents wary of going further.
“Punishment is the system’s stock-in-trade,” argued Latzer, “Whether we seek retribution, deterrence, or incapacitation, we don’t know of a better way to achieve our ends than locking up criminals.”
Some of the Democrats’ proposals are “unrealistic, either because they are outside the authority of the federal government or are politically unattainable.”
Other, he warned, “risk increased threats to public safety.”
Latzer’s analysis did not cover former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who emerged as a leading presidential candidate after the article was written.
The calls for cutting incarceration in half would, for instance, gain little traction in state houses, he pointed out.
“Since over half of all state prisoners are in for murder, rape, robbery or assault, and another 14 percent were sentenced for burglary, major theft or fraud, public enthusiasm for leniency would be limited,” Latzer said.
“The public will be even less enthusiastic when they come to understand that three out of four prison inmates are repeat offenders. Of course, there’s always the old left-wing standby of eliminating imprisonment for drug offenses, but drug possession accounts for only 3.5 percent of state prison populations. We’d have to free drug traffickers to downsize imprisonment a meaningful 11 percent.”
Calls for an overhaul of the money bail system advocated by Warren, Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden were similarly misconstrued, according to Latzer.
“Bail reform is often billed as the antidote to discrimination against the poor,” he wrote.
“Of course, nearly all street criminals — the vast bulk of offenders – are poor, and anything with a price tag hurts them more than the affluent. But that doesn’t make bail discriminatory.
“Discrimination depends on intent, and defendants aren’t admitted to bail because they’re indigent, but rather because they’ve been arrested and are likely to abscond or commit additional crimes. Besides, we don’t know a better way to ensure justice and public safety.”
Latzer cited statistics showing that one-third of arrested defendants nationwide “fail to show up for their court dates or do additional crimes once released.”
Between 1990 and 2004, 33 percent of defendants were charged with committing one or more types of misconduct after being released, including failure-to-appear and rearrest, Latzer noted, “and that’s without bail reform.”
According to Latzer, the New York State law that went into effect in January, eliminating bail for most offenses, is an example of the aggressive approaches he believes are dangerous, echoing the view of opponents who are already lobbying to curtail many of the law’s provisions.
“This law will release thousands of arrested suspects, including, as I analyze it, many serious, violent and high flight risk defendants,” wrote Latzer, noting there were at least 25 violent felonies for which judges would be required to put the just-arrested defendant right back on the streets.
“The results of the New York State bail reform — a slowly unfolding debacle — may well determine the future of this type of policy proposal,” he said.
Turning to calls for eliminating private prisons, favored by Buttigieg, Biden and Sanders, Latzer said the claim that for-profit prisons fuel mass incarceration was “specious.”
“There is modest evidence of cost savings with privatized prisons, a principal reason that governments rely on them,” he wrote. “There is contradictory evidence regarding private corrections and recidivism.”
Many of the reforms critiqued by Latzer, such as sentencing and bail reform, have received wide bipartisan support, but his critique reflects a hardening campaign by tough-on-crime advocates—spearheaded by Attorney General William Barr—to push back on more transformative changes in the justice system.
Last week, Barr lashed out against reform prosecutors around the country who have been implementing changes in sentencing procedures for “promoting criminality.”
Latzer did not address federal justice reforms that have received wide bipartisan support, such as the First Step Act.
Additional Reading: Crime Wave Rhetoric ‘Unfounded’, says Vera. The Crime Report, July 20, 2017