Bad law and failed order
As the Republican National Convention plays out this week, a public service warning to all Americans: Don’t buy the hype you are hearing when it comes to crime in America.
We already knew the “Purge“-like storyline President Trump and Republicans are peddling. They claim that only they can save urban America from crime and suburban America from Black and Brown “criminals.” We knew this was coming; we have seen previews in vile tweets, incendiary statements and banal campaign ads that incite racial divisions and invoke misguided fears.
So, as they replay that movie, let’s do a fact-check.
First, we must level-set. More than 178, 000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 in the last nine months, and that number is likely an undercount. On the other hand, in 2018, the last full year of available data, there were 16,214 homicides in the U.S. — less than 10 percent of the deaths from a virus this president has largely ignored. In fact, homicide is not even in the top 10 causes of death in America. Every death is a loss, and we have more work to do to make our country safer and healthier. But we cannot let Trump exaggerate the prevalence of violent crime to distract us from his dismal record protecting lives from this devastating pandemic.
The average number of annual homicides under President Obama (15,177) was more than 1,000 fewer than under President Trump (16,754). At the same time, Trump has overseen a dramatic increase in hate crime. In Trump’s two years for which data is available, there were 7,175 and 7,120 hate crimes — significantly more than in any year that President Obama was in office. And police officers have statistically been no safer from felonious death under Trump (50 per year) than under Obama (51).
This administration’s hypocrisy over local rule must also be examined. President Trump, Attorney General William Barr and their allies regularly attack reform-minded prosecutors and encourage federal intervention. But these local prosecutors were elected by their communities explicitly because of their commitment to reform the system.
Yet, when it comes to COVID-19, where federal leadership is critical, this administration hypocritically insists on deferring to local rule. And while this administration is arguing in court about the need for unrestrained prosecutorial discretion to dismiss charges against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, it seeks to erode well-established discretion local prosecutors are using to promote racial justice and address mass incarceration.
What these reform-minded prosecutors understand is that past “tough on crime” practices didn’t work. For more than two decades, regardless of what party has held the presidency, homicide numbers have remained at historic lows. Despite annual state and local law enforcement and corrections spending of close to $200 billion, the homicide rate has barely moved and the clearance rate for homicides and other crimes remains pathetically low. The number of people law enforcement officers annually kill – more than 1,000 – also remains stubbornly consistent.
Despite the Trump administration’s attempt to spread fear among suburban voters, we know that we can significantly reduce the footprint of law enforcement while also enhancing community safety and constitutional policing. In New York City, there were 685,724 police stops in 2011. From 2014 through 2017, that number was below 50,000, and the number of homicides and violent crimes trended down significantly throughout that period.
While under a federal consent decree, New Orleans had its lowest homicide numbers in decades. While it is too early to determine whether we are seeing any significant uptick in violent crime, the economic consequences of Trump’s failed COVID-19 response, his refusal to address the proliferation of firearms and his encouragement of police violence would be the most likely causes.
Those fighting for dramatic changes to our criminal system recognize that, to truly enhance public safety, we must address underlying societal problems and fortify community trust. We must treat substance use disorder as the public health issue that it is. We must ensure people have jobs paying decent wages. We must reduce homelessness and provide quality, affordable housing. We must be smarter about education spending and eliminate school police who propel Black and Brown kids into the justice system. We must stop the disparate searches, arrests, detention, use of force and incarceration of people of color. And we must not ignore racism in all systems, because only when there is equality and justice will there be safety.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. Roy L. Austin, Jr. is a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm and the former deputy assistant to President Obama for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity. Both are former longtime federal prosecutors.
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