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Criminal justice reform’s arrested development

By MARY C. CURTIS | CQ Roll Call | Published: August 23, 2019

That didn’t last long.

For a while, it looked as though the distance between the parties had narrowed on the issue of criminal justice reform. Bipartisan cooperation passed the First Step Act, a small step indeed toward remedying America’s mass incarceration crisis that disproportionately, in a historically skewed system, burdens minorities and the poor in everything from arrests to sentencing. Increasingly, though, the rhetoric resembles a partisan return to form.

But is the public changing?

With a nudge from viral videos and reasons to doubt the “official” story, as well as attention paid to inequities built into the history of policing in America, more aware citizens may have evolved more than politicians.

For past presidential candidates like Richard Nixon, “law and order” became mantra as well as code, a promise to protect a silent (white) majority from young people protesting war, African Americans demanding equality, anyone looking to shake up the status quo. It was a page from a very old playbook — and it worked for those afraid of change.

You can hear the refrain, amplified, from the current president, when he bolsters law enforcement on the border and speaks of an invasion. Donald Trump may take a cue from “consultants” such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian when he intervenes in the individual case of a nonviolent drug offender or feuds with Sweden over a jailed rapper. But the president has always seemed more comfortable when he has advised police officers not to be “too nice” to suspects or maligned cities as criminal cesspools — even when the city was El Paso, Texas, relatively peaceful until a white domestic terrorist echoing the president’s words blasted its tranquility to bits.

With 2020 looming, other members of the administration and other Republicans are falling in line and reverting to the past.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, so eager to release police departments from agreed-upon consent decrees to reform corruption and misconduct, had nothing on successor William Barr. In a recent speech to the Fraternal Order of Police conference in New Orleans, Barr took a partisan blowtorch to the legitimacy of duly elected prosecutors, saying the appointment of progressive district attorneys is “demoralizing to law enforcement and dangerous to public safety” because they “spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”

In a column in The Washington Post, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Democratic nominee for commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington, Va., Mark Gonzalez, district attorney for Nueces County, Texas, and Wesley Bell, county prosecutor for St. Louis County, Mo., hit back, writing: “We are dedicated to safety and justice. We understand that our current criminal legal system throws away too many people, breaks up too many families, destroys too many communities and wastes too much money. And we refuse to accept that a wealthy democracy cannot figure out how to keep its people safe without criminalizing as many things as possible, prosecuting as hard as possible and punishing people for as long as possible.”

These are officials who campaigned on the promise to respect all citizens instead of reflexively treating entire populations as potential perps. As someone who grew up in an urban neighborhood that was at once under protected and over policed, I recognize the challenges these prosecutors were elected to alleviate.

Because of videos and education, the general public and those not affected by unequal treatment have learned, as well, of the names and cases of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile — and the list goes on. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to run for another term was hastened by the delayed release of the video of Officer Jason Van Dyke, now serving time for his crime, shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times.

When Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City officer who placed Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold before he died, recently was fired, the police union president was the loudest voice objecting to the move, and now Patrick Lynch is hinting at a work slowdown in response. To those haunted by the voice of Garner saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times and the sight of officers and EMT personnel standing by, Pantaleo was lucky no charges were filed.

Props must also be given to efforts such as The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which examines, it says, “the consequences of slavery” and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Its all-too-true stories draw the line from injustices then to those that persist, including the fact that law enforcement throughout the country’s history was often the brutal enforcer of repressive policies.

In the 2020 presidential race, Democratic candidates are not afraid to be vocal about criminal justice and police reform plans. In fact, candidates have had to explain their past records as mayors and prosecutors and, in front-runner Joe Biden’s case, his role in helping to write the 1994 crime bill, acknowledged to have played a large role in the mass incarceration that followed.

It’s a big change from when Democrats were reluctant to speak out, afraid of being judged “soft on crime.”

So, while for a moment it seemed Democrats and Republicans might be moving closer to a tentative truce on the issue, unfortunately the importance of seeking a more just “justice” is becoming, like so much else, another opportunity to disagree.

Mary C. Curtis is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project.

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