Off the Radar: Criminal justice policy


Filling in for Matthew Yglesias at the eponymous Yglesias blog on, Ta-Nehisi asks, somewhat provocatively, “Is the Criminal Justice System Racist?”

Pivoting off of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s first execution in (a whole!) two years, Nehisi remarks that criminal justice reform has apparently fallen “off the radar” during this campaign season.  Hence, the title of yet another new feature of this blog: “Off the Radar: What the candidates AREN’T talking about (but others are).”

The general feeling in this country since the late 90s seems to be that as a country we’ve solved the whole “crime issue.”  Part of the consequence of the red state-blue state divide has been tendency of candidates on both sides to focus on the battleground areas in the country and ignore, for the most part, the issues affecting their own base or the base of their opponent.  Republicans conceded cities to Democrats.  Democrats conceded the rural areas.  The battle has been waged almost exclusively in the suburbs.

Since the end of the crack epidemic, the fall of organized crime and the apparent disappearance of gang-related activity (or at least the reporting of such activity within its overall context), crime has become an urban problem.  Crime levels themselves, despite rising in recent years, are still far below where they were in the late 80s and early 90s.  The crime that has been occurring has taken place in the out-of-sight, out-of-mind, very poor areas of major cities – far away from the tourists, day trippers, culture getters and fine diners.

While it continues to be an issue in mayoral races and in races for open Congressional seats (since urban incumbents are almost never challenged), the national dialog about the overall crime issue has been silenced.

Under the umbrella of that issue is the sub-issue of reforming the criminal justice system.

Ta-Nehisi, despite the title of the post, explains:

Frankly, this is as it should be–you don’t win elections by talking about shortening the sentences of criminals. Still, I hope this issue is a priority, should Obama win.

Indeed, to me, one of the promises of an Obama administration would be that he could (hopefully) deracialize certain issues that really occur to me as matters of basic fairness and justice. Heather Macdonald has had a field day dismantling those who claim that the criminal justice is racist. But I think that’s a strawman. Frankly, I don’t much care about whether the law was intended to hurt black people, nor do I care whether it’s called racist or not. To the extent that the “racist” label is a distraction, it should be jettisoned. It seems like the real question should be, Does our drug policy make sense? Are we helping or hurting the situation in our inner cities?

Remember, when 1 out of every 100 people in this country is in prison, when our prison population is larger than the population of several small countries, and when our prison system consistently fails to achieve one of its state goals – rehabilitation – then we have a system that will only continue to feed upon itself until the resources we use to sustain it eat away at some of the programs we’d like to fund – like schools and infrastructure.

It’s an issue that will be Off the Radar, but it’s one that needs to be addressed.  Today’s urban issues have a way of becoming tomorrow’s suburban issues really quickly.


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