While we’re still in the spirit of the fictional 1980s character Marty McFly and what he encountered when he traveled to October 2015, consider there is one more thing “Back to the Future” failed to predict. Politicians and police are no longer trying to get tough on crime.
If you were around in the ’80s, you’ll know how absurd that would have sounded. You can almost hear Dr. Emmett Brown. “What else are you going to tell me about 2015, future boy? That an avowed
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socialist is a serious presidential candidate?”
Yes, times change and pendulums swing, sometimes in ways no one can foresee. But rarely can we not really see them in hindsight, either.
It’s easy to believe that tough-on-crime policies were the victims of their own success. After all, crime is down astoundingly since the ‘80s. But experts say there is no cause-and-effect, and that crime won’t skyrocket if we loosen the shackles a bit.
You had better hope they’re right. The crime rate is something we don’t want to turn into a pendulum.
I covered plenty of political debates in the ‘80s that devolved into back-and-forth claims over who would hit criminals harder. In other states, politicians looked to baseball for answers. So-called “three strikes” laws sent people away for life upon their third felony conviction, even if it was for drug possession or shoplifting.
So McFly and the rest of us might have had trouble envisioning the announcement Tuesday that 130 police chiefs from the nation’s largest cities, including Garry F. McCarthy of bullet-riddled Chicago, were joining with prosecutors and sheriffs to call for alternatives to locking people up.
This made it just about unanimous among the nation’s ruling class. On Monday, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate joined together in support for lower sentences for federal non-violent drug offenses. Police were seen as traditional opponents of this idea, until now.
This wouldn’t be politically possible without the crime rate collapsing like a week-old jack-o-lantern. Violent crime is off 51 percent from its high in 1991. Murder is down 54 percent. In New York City, only 328 homicides occurred last year, compared to 2,245 in 1990, according to the New York Times. Getting tough on crime doesn’t buy too many votes when there is little crime to speak of.
But it turns out no one really knows why this has happened. A study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that locking everybody up has its limits. As the Atlantic reported earlier this year, the study found that getting tough worked at first. About 5 percent of the drop in crime in the 1990s was due to putting away people who shouldn’t have been free. But we kept locking people up — non-violent people, many with mental health issues and addictions.
Today, the Atlantic said, “almost half of state prisoners are convicted of non-violent crimes. More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses.”
If we locked away another 1 percent of the people police arrest, it would reduce crime by about 0.02 percent, or nothing at all.
Which might not bother law-abiding people except for one thing. They are the ones paying for all those prisons, and state budgets are straining under the burden.
Tough-on-crime always had a built-in shelf life. To mix sports metaphors in a way Yogi Berra might admire, sooner or later so many people strike out that the penalty box won’t hold them.
The answer lies in real treatment programs for people with addictions and real rehabilitation efforts for low-level criminals who never learned important life skills.
That will take bipartisan effort. Pundits like yours truly have been urging this for years.
But while we’re pushing that pendulum and revving the DeLorean, and while experts are pointing to the economy, an aging population and even cleaner air as reasons crime is down, we might want to keep our heads up.
Murders are up sharply this year in many of the nation’s biggest cities. No one seems to know why that is happening, either, but we might wait awhile before tearing down any prisons.