Criminal Justice after Peak Woke
Clifton Roscoe weighs in
In the wake of the crime spikes of 2020, the shape of criminal justice and policing in the US began undergoing some changes. On the one hand, the murder of George Floyd led to an unprecedented wave of protests and riots that further intensified the spotlight on bad policing. On the other hand, more crime has led to public skepticism toward the most extreme measures recommended by anti-cop activists and progressive district attorneys.
Since all of this playing out at the state and local levels across the country, it can be difficult to get a grasp on what exactly to make of the current state of criminal justice. Luckily, we’ve got just the man to guide us through the landscape: Clifton Roscoe. In what follows, Clifton provides a 30,000-foot view of criminal justice after the “peak woke” of summer 2020 and offers some hypotheses as to where we might go from here. As always, Clifton brings the goods!
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Criminal Justice after Peak Woke
by Clifton Roscoe
America’s criminal justice system has undergone significant reforms over the past 30 years. Most of those reforms were in response to crime trends. People demand strong action when crime spikes and they don't feel safe. They're willing to try less punitive versions of criminal justice when crime rates are low. Americans were at their wit’s end in the early 1990s after decades of high homicide numbers and a spike in violence that people associated with crack cocaine. The 1994 Crime Bill was created in response to these issues. It was either a necessary move or a racially motivated action, depending upon whom you believe. What’s clear, however, is that America’s incarceration rate grew and crime rates fell afterwards.
The number of incarcerated people shown above is as of 2019 and includes those in America's jails. The size of America's incarcerated population fell further during the pandemic. Here's an estimate of America's total incarcerated population as of 2021 using mid-year 2021 numbers for jail inmates and year-end 2021 numbers for state and federal prisoners:
636,300 jail inmates + 1,204,300 state and federal prisoners = 1,840,600 total U.S. prisoners
Criminologists still argue about what brought about the sharp reduction in crime that was evident by the mid 2000’s. That lack of clarity opened the door to debates about whether America’s criminal justice system was too punitive, whether it was racist given the disproportionate number of black men behind bars, and whether America could be just as safe if we only locked up violent offenders. Crime rates were down and the cost of housing prisoners was rising, so penny pinchers and moralizers found common ground. They argued that we could bring down the prison population without increasing crime. It looked like they were right for a while. But crime rates began to rise, gradually at first, only to explode in 2020.
So what caused crime rates to spike? Covid? Policing reforms and consent decrees that came about after high-profile allegations of police misconduct? Understaffed police departments that were the result of cops leaving law enforcement? Had cops gone “fetal” as Rahm Emanuel said back in 2016? Progressive prosecutors? Something else? Criminologists haven’t reached a consensus.
Responses to the “racial reckoning” that came after the summer of 2020 (aka Peak Woke) are becoming evident. Here are a few observations:
Progressive prosecutors are on their heels. Chesa Boudin was recalled in San Francisco. Marilyn Mosby was voted out of office in Baltimore. Pennsylvania Republicans are trying to impeach Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner. Missouri’s Attorney General is trying to remove St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner from office (a judge has been appointed to oversee the proceedings). Missouri Republicans are pursuing legislation that would allow the governor to take over local prosecutors’ offices for up to five years if homicide rates in their jurisdictions exceed 35 per 100,000. Georgia Republicans are pushing a bill that would provide more oversight of local prosecutors as well. Mississippi Republicans are pursuing legislation that would allow them to set up a separate policing district and court system for parts of Jackson, the state capital. Efforts to remove Los Angeles County DA George Gascón failed last summer, but the fight may not be over. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will give you a sense of how widespread the pushback against progressive prosecutors has become.
Crime is affecting local elections. Eric Adams became mayor of New York in large part because voters in the outer boroughs liked his tough on crime rhetoric. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost her reelection bid in a city where crime is the number one issue for voters.
Crime victims and their supporters have become more assertive. They set up press conferences, they read carefully prepared statements from their smartphones, they demand that criminals be held accountable, and they demand justice for their loved ones. Sometimes they have professional advocates. Attorney Thiru Vignaranjah in Baltimore has aggressively represented the families of Timothy Reynolds and Deanta Dorsey, a white guy who was killed during an altercation with squeegee workers and a black teen who was killed near a fast food restaurant, respectively.
The press and the public have begun to react to the spike in violent crimes involving teens. The killing of 12 year-old Zyion Charles and 15 year-old Cameron Jackson on Thanksgiving weekend outside a mall resonated across Atlanta. Fox Baltimore has reported that over 200 teens have been shot and another 80 killed since the beginning of 2019.
Judges, who often hold elected offices, are responding to public pressure and are starting to hand out tougher sentences. The guy who drove through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin and killed several people was sentenced to six life terms. The guy convicted of murdering rapper Nipsey Hussle received a sentence of 60 years to life. The killer of a mother who was visiting Annapolis to witness her son’s induction into the US Naval Academy was given three consecutive life sentences. The mother was not the intended target. A stray bullet killed her
The ideological tug of war over our criminal justice system won't end anytime soon. We’re headed toward a new equilibrium point. It won’t be as progressive as it was before, but it’s anybody’s guess how far to the right it will go. Caveat noted, here are some clues regarding where we may end up:
The “all cops are bad” and the “defund the police” narratives are mostly dead. People want cops to bring crime under control, but they also want to be treated fairly and humanely. Those who run law enforcement agencies will have to find a sweet spot between those objectives. They'll also have to do more to recruit, develop, and retain good police officers. We may see more tweaks to policing in the aftermath of Tyre Nichols, but we're unlikely to see the kinds of policing reforms that activists wanted after George Floyd.
The recent violent crime spike makes it difficult for Democrats and Republicans in Washington to find common ground and pass sweeping criminal justice reforms. Most of the action will take place at the state and local levels.
News organizations and the public are paying closer attention to the criminal histories of those accused of committing violent crimes. Progressive prosecutors and judges will be under increasing pressure to deal with repeat violent offenders more harshly. We won't go back to “lock 'em up and throw away the key,” but it is notable that Ivan Bates, Baltimore's new state's attorney, wants longer sentences for gun crime offenders. He also wants to provide “wraparound” services to ex-offenders after they leave prison so they don't commit new crimes. Here's an interview he did with Baltimore's NBC affiliate where he explains his approach.
People around the country will take notice if Ivan Bates is successful. The ideological tug of war will continue in the meantime.