Pubdate: Mon, 19 Aug 2013
Source: Australian, The (Australia)
Copyright: 2013sThe Australian
Author: Andrew Sullivan


The Pendulum Has Swung Too Far, Savaging Trust

I'M old enough to remember New York in the 1980s. It was violent, 
exhilarating and sometimes desolate. As the crack epidemic laid waste 
to AfricanAmerican neighbourhoods, in particular, the city felt like 
it must have in the gang-ridden New York of the 19th century. The 
number of murders in the city kept rising until, in 1990, a modern 
record of 2254 victims was marked. The city was ungovernable, we were 
told. And then Rudy Giuliani governed it.

New police tactics, attention to the small things in urban life that 
can entrench crime, such as vandalism and graffiti, and a draconian 
emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences made a big difference. By 
2005, as the prison population soared, the number of murders was just 
539. Then something even more remarkable occurred: the murder and 
crime rates kept going down. Even when the recession hit, crime did 
not revive. Last year, the number of murders in New York was 414. 
There are more than 100 US cities with a crime rate higher than the 
Big Apple's.

That is the critical context for what's happening now. Last week, a 
federal judge struck down a key police tactic called " stop and 
frisk" as unconstitutional racial profiling. In the mayor's race, the 
leader for the Democrats is Bill de Blasio, whose signature campaign 
has been against stop and frisk - the searching of young men in 
high-crime areas for guns and drugs.

Who lives in those areas? Mainly black and Hispanic New Yorkers. And 
that meant, eventually, that black and Hispanic young men were all 
too easily the main target for the policy, until it could be 
plausibly argued that their race was the sole reason they were stopped.

The statistics tell the tale. One way to see whether race, rather 
than genuine suspicion of illegality, was the criterion for stopping 
someone is to see how many of those stopped were in fact carrying a 
gun or drugs. Between 2004 and last year, New York police stopped and 
frisked black New Yorkers 2.3 million times and white New Yorkers 
435,000 times. The black suspects were found to be carrying drugs or 
guns or weapons about 16,000 times. The whites? Also about 16,000 
times. In other words, 143 innocent black New Yorkers were stopped 
and frisked for every 27 innocent white New Yorkers. That's a huge discrepancy.

More to the point, there was a huge increase in the number of people 
targeted by stop and frisk in the past decade, just as the crime rate 
was reaching record lows. The number rose by a staggering 600 per 
cent from 2002 to last year, meaning almost 700,000 New Yorkers were 
frisked last year as they went about their business.

If that happens disproportionately to black citizens, it is deeply 
corrosive of trust in the police and liable to embitter the hundreds 
of thousands of innocent black people who have felt singled out for 
harassment and scrutiny solely because of their race.

White youngsters in the hip nightclubs of lower Manhattan, for 
example, routinely have cocaine or ecstasy or a cannabis joint in 
their pockets and are almost never stopped. But a lone young black 
kid with a joint in his pocket in the Bronx is a sitting duck. If 
found guilty, his future is ruined by drug laws that give him a jail 
sentence and a criminal record. You can see why this unfairness 
rankles, even if it can crudely reduce crime rates below their 
previous all-time lows.

Yes, young black and Hispanic men commit a disproportionate number of 
crimes and high-crime areas are home to disproportionate numbers of 
black and Hispanic men. But the racial disparity endured in the 
statistics, even after accounting for these factors. In other words, 
the anti-crime pendulum has clearly swung too far. The goal in a free 
society is not to eradicate crime but to eradicate crime without 
creating a police state.

The turning of the tide in New York has been matched by a similar 
broad backtrack across the country. Many Republican southern states 
that had been the biggest boosters of high incarceration rates and 
prosecution of the drug war paved the way. They began to realise that 
the cost of housing such a vast population in prisons was fast 
outweighing the benefits. They cut costs by jailing fewer non-violent 
drug offenders.

And last week the federal government weighed in, saying that first- 
time non-violent drug offenders would no longer be subject to 
mandatory minimum sentences in federal jails.

This is a significant change that may spur a debate about crime 
tactics in other countries. The US, of course, is in another universe 
when it comes to incarceration rates. There are about 720 people in 
jail per 100,000 Americans. But even in this hard-on-crime country 
there comes a point at which the social and financial costs of 
draconian anti-crime policies overwhelm the benefits.

Democratic countries benefit from two main parties vying to deal with 
social and economic problems, tacking right and then left to achieve 
a healthy equilibrium. To be in favour of Giuliani's crackdowns in 
the 80s and 90s does not mean you have to support them long after 
they have resolved the problems of their time. In that chaotic 
crimeridden era, Giuliani was right. But today the cost of mass 
incarceration, the toll of lives ruined and the dangers of racial 
profiling loom larger.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom