In a week and a half Democrats will lose a bunch of elections. The only question is whether all that red will come in the form of a tsunami or a breaker.
They’ll lose primarily because of inflation (which they didn’t have much to do with), but also because of crime (which is a more nuanced question).
The increase in violent crime started under Donald Trump and it has been a fact of life in both liberal and conservative jurisdictions. Still, it has been an article of faith among the hard-left, and even among more moderate liberals, that we have to reduce incarceration rates. In an oped in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, former Attorney General William Barr makes a strong, if flawed, case against that.
Here’s Barr’s central argument:
Studies have repeatedly shown that most predatory crime is committed by a small, hard-core group of habitual offenders. They are a tiny fraction of the population—I estimate roughly 1%—but are responsible for between half and two-thirds of predatory violent crime. Each of these offenders can be expected to commit scores, even hundreds, of crimes a year, frequently while on bail, probation or parole. The only time they aren’t committing crimes is when they’re in prison. For this group, the likelihood of reoffending usually doesn’t recede until they reach their late 30s. The only way to reduce violent crime appreciably is to keep this cohort off the streets.
This is a point that I’ve been making for the last couple of years. When we look at the record number of shots fired incidents around Madison the perpetrators tend to be people with criminal records. Some of those people could have been taken off the streets if they were picked up for bail jumping, parole violations or other relatively minor kinds of crimes, like disorderly conduct. For me, the answer is not to eliminate cash bail, but to enforce bail jumping. The answer is not to let parole violations go, but to cack down on them. The answer is not to abandon the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement, but to embrace it. And the answer most certainly is not to dramatically reduce the county jail capacity, though if the County Board ever gets around to jail consolidation, it will reduce the number of beds even under the most conservative plan.
The left is going in precisely the wrong direction on this, ironically, because of their concern for racial justice. There’s no question that more Black men will be locked up for these violations. But what the left misses is that these criminals overwhelmingly prey on other Black people. The hard-left, made up largely of affluent white folks who live in crime free neighborhoods, is exclusively concerned with Black criminals and not at all concerned with the vast majority of law-abiding Black citizens who just want to live in peaceful neighborhoods.
The standard Democratic dodge on this is that we want to address the “root causes” of crime. Barr addresses that directly:
Progressives have no solution. As in the ’60s, they call for more social spending to address the supposed “root causes” of violent crime. But even if we knew how to address the root causes effectively, which we don’t, implementing the solution would take decades. People are entitled to protection now. Even the best-designed social programs have no chance of success in neighborhoods strangled by violence and fear. Law and order is a prerequisite for social progress.
Barr is absolutely right on the merits, but his party also gets a boost on the politics. When people hear Democrats say they want to get at the “root causes” of crime they hear them saying that they have no sense of urgency on the issue. And even if you agree that the roots causes are poverty and racism, well, we’re not going to solve those problems overnight. People want to know what you’re going to do about the shooting incidents happening in their neighborhood right now.
But then Barr goes too far. He touts the huge increase in prison populations during his stints as AG as if that’s something to be proud of. This undercuts his point, which is that you need to lock up a very select set of criminals. The answer isn’t mass incarceration; it’s precise incarceration.
Barr is saying that there is a very small number of violent people out there — almost all young men and, yes sadly, disproportionately Black young men — who are the problem. What we need is a criminal justice system that keeps violent, young criminals locked up until they’re no longer inclined to violence. The implication of that is that you may actually be able to lower the prison population with reduced or eliminated sentences for non-violent offenders and shorter sentences for violent ones. When a guy gets to be 40, his tendency toward violence is greatly reduced.
I’ll offer two pieces of evidence to bolster that claim. First, federal prison populations have been declining for years, but the uptick in violent crime is a more recent phenomenon, often linked in some undefined way to COVID. According to a story in the Wisconsin State Journal, which also set the facts straight about Gov. Tony Evers’ and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’ record on parole: “The federal prison population was 219,298 in 2013 and 158,974 as of Oct. 20, a 28% reduction over nearly nine years.” And second, Minnesota, a state very much like ours, locks up roughly half as many people as we do and has about the same crime rate. That suggests that you don’t need to lock up a lot of people, just the right people.
While I think that Barr made a good case, there’s also no reason to think that prison populations can’t be further reduced while keeping the public safe. But in this world of polarized electoral politics, there’s no room for nuance and reason. We can reduce both crime and prison populations, but that answer is in the middle and the population there has been reduced to almost nothing.