When it comes to criminal justice reform, whom are you going to believe? James Comey, the nation’s top cop, or politicians eager to curry favor with the black community?
FBI chief James Comey earned himself a summons to the Oval Office last week by telling the truth about the war on crime. President Obama suggests that racial bias has led to too many black men being locked up and vows to combat “disparities in the application of criminal justice.” Comey argues that tough policing in minority neighborhoods has saved thousands of black lives and that the recent upsurge in homicides may reflect the “YouTube” effect -- making police officers nervous to do their jobs. The good news is that Comey, imbued with an impressive independence streak, has another 8 years to serve. Even though Obama could presumably pressure him to resign, he can’t fire him.
Democrats and Republicans alike have hopped aboard the criminal justice bandwagon, noting the large incarceration rate in the United States and the disproportionate number of prisoners of color. Hillary Clinton hit a common theme when she noted in a speech last spring, “It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.” She fails to note that the disparity stems from higher crime rates. Homicides in the U.S. run seven times the rate in other developed countries, according to a 2011 study from the Harvard School of Public Health and the UCLA School of Public Health.
Clinton also gets it backwards with her next statement: “The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”
Many would suggest that crime is at historic lows because so many criminals have been put behind bars. Comey made that case recently, speaking at the University of Chicago Law School. He reminds us that not so long ago, urban crime, especially in minority neighborhoods, was horrific. In New York City, 2,000 homicides a year was considered the norm in the 1980s and 1990s; last year there were 328. As Comey notes, “White people weren’t dying; black people were dying. Most white people could drive around the problem. If you were white and not involved in the drug trade as a buyer or a seller, you were largely apart from the violence.”
New York was not alone. Comey recalls his tenure as a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia, where there was a “plague of violence” in that city’s black neighborhoods. Drug gangs controlled the streets and were strangling the community. Only by sending dealers to prison did residents feel safe enough to once again sit on their porches and let their children play in the streets. Comey was asked then, “Why we were doing so much prosecuting in black neighborhoods and locking up so many black men. After all, Richmond was surrounded by areas with largely white populations. Surely there were drug dealers in the suburbs.” His answer: “We are there in those neighborhoods because that’s where people are dying.”
As Comey points out, no one is speaking up for those not murdered or raped because the streets are safer – those whose lives have been saved don’t speak to the press or march in the streets. Rather, activists join Clinton in blasting “mass incarceration” and back up Carly Fiorina’s lament that “Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related.” Though this is simply not true.
The facts are that of the 2.2 million people held in U.S. prisons, less than 10 percent (200,000) are in federal lock-ups. Because the states handle prosecutions of most murders, rapes and other violent crimes, it is true that about half of those in federal prisons have been convicted of drug-related crimes. They are not, typically, “young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made’, as President Obama suggested in a heavily publicized visit to a federal prison last July. Rather, they are usually traffickers or other repeat offenders who have pled down to lesser charges. Less than 1 percent of those punished for drug offenses in federal court in 2014 were convicted of merely possession.
At the state level, only one in 6 prisoners is in prison for drug-related crimes; only 3.6 percent were doing time for possession, often the outcome from a plea-bargain. More than half have been convicted of violent offenses. A study in 2004 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 95 percent of those locked up in state prisons for “nonviolent” crimes had a long rap sheet, averaging more than 9 arrests and 4 convictions; nearly one third had previously been arrested for a violent crime.
None of this suggests that we should not be reviewing sentencing laws or that we do not have a crime problem in this country. Nor that there are some heart-breaking stories about those few individuals caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and, because of sentencing laws, locked up for far too long. But, any discussion of the matter should be based on facts, not politics.
In their embrace of criminal justice reform, Hillary Clinton and other candidates have sought quick fixes like lighter sentencing. This approach will bear little fruit. As a report from the Urban Institute points out, “Reducing drug admissions to 15 large state penitentiaries by half would lower those states’ prison count by only 7 percent.”
President Obama is advocating early release for non-threatening prisoners, as well as job training and employment help for those released, to reduce recidivism. Unhappily, a program with the same aim in several cities including Chicago and Detroit was evaluated by the Urban Institute and the University of Michigan, which found, “The transitional jobs programs did not significantly affect key measures of recidivism over the two-year follow-up period. About half of each group were arrested, and a similar number returned to prison.”
All these initiatives appeal to those blacks and Hispanics convinced that their communities have been unfairly targeted by law enforcement officials. They will likely be less popular with their neighbors, who worry that their streets will again become unsafe for their children. Perhaps it is time for law-abiding citizens in those crime-threatened communities to make their voices heard. And to turn our law enforcement management back to the pros, like James Comey.