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The recent call to defund police departments that has grown out of the current Black Lives Matter movement is something communities of color and criminologists have been talking about for a while. Calls to defund the police and/or prison abolition can sound scary to those just hearing about them. Understanding what these mean and how they’re justified may help people grapple with what might appear frightening and too radical at first.

Defunding police departments and prison abolition is part of a broader movement among criminologists and marginalized communities called “Justice Reinvestment”. This is the argument that cities, states and the federal government should reallocate some of the billions of taxpayers’ dollars currently invested in these institutions into services that better serve the needs of our fellow Americans.

This movement arose because there appears to be little relationship between the size of police force, the number of people incarcerated or the severity of punishment — on actual crime. Police forces grew exponentially over the past few decades as part of the War on Drugs, the Get-Tough movement and the Broken Windows policing practices that followed. Many, many more people were arrested and sentenced to time in jail or prison, often for low-level crimes and those related to drugs, as police departments across the country were vested with the authority to clean up the streets. After decades of research, criminologists now agree that current practices do much more damage than good, and they impact communities of color far too harshly and in ways that are vastly incommensurate of their crime rates.

Communities of color have known this for a long, long time. Those arrested and incarcerated are highly traumatized while in prison (by both other prisoners and prison guards), have their bonds with family and friends ruined, are further marginalized from jobs, housing, licensing and many of the other necessities that would help them improve their lives upon release. And it’s not only them that suffer, their parents and children suffer as well, losing the connections with parents or supportive loved ones that are so essential for healthy human development. In fact, as renowned criminologist Todd Clear notes, incarceration is so concentrated and severe in urban communities of color that they destabilize entire neighborhoods, dissolving the informal controls that naturally allow people to maintain order themselves.

This would be a problem even if police (or incarceration, for that matter) actually prevented crime, if it reduced the crime rate. But they don’t. In fact, criminologist Travis Pratt noted, while it may seem intuitive that mass incarceration is an effective way of controlling crime, the results of over 600 empirical studies reveal it is not. Few are willing to hear this, but it’s true and not very difficult to accept if we are willing to go beyond overly simplistic and wrongheaded thinking of people committing crimes as just “evil-doers”.

This movement arose because there appears to be little relationship between the size of police force, the number of people incarcerated or the severity of punishment — on actual crime.

With the Get-Tough movement supported widely by both Republicans and Democrats across the nation, cities grew their police forces, equipped them with military gear and created special task forces focused on drugs and gangs (usually very loosely defined). This has had virtually no effect on crime rates and victimization rates, as the quality and quantity of drugs has skyrocketed, as have the number of guns and gangs on the streets, but it has resulted in more violent police departments.

The basic conclusions that we must draw are that policing not only does not work to reduce or prevent crime, but it makes things worse. This is especially the case for the nation’s black and brown populations. Not only does policing do little to address the underlying conditions that create crime in the first place, but makes them worse.

Can police departments be reformed? Many criminologists are increasingly skeptical. Few supported the popular call for body cameras in 2014 when the Black Lives Movement emerged, arguing that it is not the systemic change needed. Why the skepticism? It is mainly because we ask the police to do things they are neither equipped to do nor designed to do.

Police are tasked with responding to all kinds of problems, from mental health, drug addiction, domestic abuses, homelessness, and disputes among youth. Yet, it’s not an institution designed to deal with these social problems in any way other than arrests. However, we will never arrest our way out of these. They require other strategies, strategies that deal with deep, ingrained, structural inequalities. Many police know this and, as Dallas Police Chief David Brown recently expressed, grow frustrated at being the key agency asked to deal with these problems. It’s damaging to them as well. It’d be helpful if they admitted it more publicly.

As institutions, police and mass incarceration are not designed to deal with these problems, nor are they designed to prevent or reduce crime, even if that’s what we like to tell ourselves. They were designed, however, to control populations that may threaten the nation’s racial and class structure. Policing, as we know it today, emerged out of private security firms, the protection of private property for those who own it, attempts to control new waves of immigration and slave patrols. From the beginning, they were created and tasked with the responsibility to enforce and uphold a vast system of racial and class inequality. They may not address crime well but, as sociologist Noel Cazenave points out, they do protect wealthy elites and a system of white supremacy, even if many of us don’t want to acknowledge it.

Of course, few police officers would agree with this or see themselves engaged in these actions. But it doesn’t matter. We seldom see our individual lives as part of larger social and historical forces. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. Further, some might argue that black and brown police do not engage in these acts, using it as a justification to diversify departments. Neither does this matter. If police do their jobs properly, they will inevitably be enforcing a system or long-standing, shapeshifting racial and class control, regardless of the racial, ethnic, or gender make-up of a department.

This is why critical scholars, activists and others involved in the present movement for black lives are calling to defund the police. The conclusion is that they don’t work to control crime, they’re not designed to do so, they often make things worse, and they control populations of color hindering their ability to create the kinds of change necessary for real racial equity.

Many justice reinvestment advocates say they can accept a very small police force and prisons allocated for the most violent of offenders. But there are more effective ways of helping almost everyone else.

So, what can we do? Where should we put our resources? Justice reinvestment advocates have different ideas, but they generally agree that most of the money currently spent on policing should be spent in areas that better support productive, healthy and pro-social lives, families and communities, something many white people and the more privileged enjoy without even knowing it. In a review of research on violence across the globe, criminologist Elliott Currie notes the societies with high levels of violence and self-harm are characterized by severe inequality, too much marginal work and low-wage jobs, weak social supports, strained families, harsh justice systems and easy availability to firearms. Indeed, shifting much of the money we spend on police and prisons towards these areas would be welcomed and effective.

What might this look like? Shifting money towards social workers, affordable and safe housing, mental health services, conflict resolution for youth and adults, adequate, long-term, residential drug treatment services, family planning, free daycare, low or no interest loans for home buyers and businesses owned and controlled by people who live in communities of color and want to invest in them. These are the things that help people develop healthy lives, stable families and safe communities. This is the crime prevention strategy we should all want, and we need to think outside of police, prosecutors and prisons to get here.

Would police and jails disappear in such a scenario? Not entirely. Many justice reinvestment advocates say they can accept a very small police force and prisons allocated for the most violent of offenders. But there are more effective ways of helping almost everyone else. Virtually every advanced, industrial country in the world has figured this out, but not the U.S.

There are other calls that must be recognized if we are to properly deal with institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system. None of them require different or more training, a monitor, or similar ineffective strategies.

First, end the War on Drugs and release all prisoners sentenced on drug possession or distribution charges from prison. The War on Drugs has cost the US over $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s a massively expensive investment to harm populations of color that already suffer from severe inequalities due to ongoing systemic racism. It needs to stop and those most affected by it should be given priority in any business endeavors that arise due to its decriminalization.

Second, we must have meaningful criminal punishment for police officers who violate the laws they’re sworn to uphold and prosecutors who lie, cheat and over-prosecute. Prosecutors’ ability to levy charges with prescribed sentences and their focus on winning cases distort civic ideals of how our courts should operate in the U.S. and they exacerbate the racism already at work with the War on Drugs and policing practices.  

Finally, envision a society that reserves prisons for only the most violent people, like serial killers. Knowing that prisons do little to reduce crime and often make things worse and at great social and economic expense should motivate us to think about something different. One step towards this would be to prevent anyone from making money running and operating prisons. Nobody should have economic incentives that call for more prisons, prisoners and longer sentences. Instead, incentives should be structured to support successful reentry. Other steps were identified earlier: residential drug treatment, stable and safe housing, residential mental health services, youth and adult conflict resolution, etc. Our strategy should be to reduce inequalities, support families and communities, and decriminalize behaviors where involvement is voluntary. We must find ways to respond to crime that do not exacerbate these underlying conditions as we have done since the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of Mass Incarceration.

It’s not a matter of whether or not we can afford it. We have no choice. We have an obligation to right the wrongs of entrenched white supremacy and its operation through the criminal justice system. And we can afford it; we have the money. What’s missing is the imagination and political will to implement significant changes. Our priorities are wrong. Our money should be spent on helping to create safe and healthy societies, not on damaging them.

That’s why people are mad and protesting. That’s why people are calling to defund the police. That’s why people want to see real progress in decriminalization and decarcertion. These are institutions with long histories of upholding white supremacy and controlling populations of color, and they are counterproductive in preventing crime. Justice reinvestment provides some suggestions on how our political leaders and fellow citizens should respond in anti-racist ways and in ways that will make for a healthier, safer, equitable society.

Stephen F. Ostertag, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Tulane University

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