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, speaking to the American Bar Association, 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, who later goes on to note that “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.”
The Holder and Scheindlin developments aren’t the only indications that public opinion might be shifting. Sentencing reform has become a bipartisan issue recently, as some conservatives have begun to realize just how expensive the tough-on-crime mentality can be. State prisons across the country are dangerously overcrowded – the conditions in California’s penal system are so bad that they have been said to constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Polls have indicated significant public support for shorter sentences and community-based prison alternatives.
And yet I’m not quite as optimistic that we’re facing a sea change in criminal justice policy. Here are a few reasons why:
The continued rise of statistics-driven policing.
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.
Monday’s ruling, pending the outcome of the city’s appeal, will make it more difficult for New York cops to stop and frisk people for race-based reasons. But Judge 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 looks 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.