U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr recently delivered a deeply troubling speech to the Fraternal Order of Police that hearkens back to failed “tough on crime” policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s – policies that drove mass incarceration and created deep rifts between communities and our justice system. Barr offered patently false statistics on crime trends and levelled harsh attacks against reform-minded DAs, saying they are setting “predators” loose on America’s streets and endangering communities.
These remarks – sadly made by the highest law enforcement official in our nation – were not just untrue and likely to stoke flames of fear and distrust, they are dangerous. That’s why we joined with 70 other current and former elected prosecutors, law enforcement leaders, and former senior Department of Justice officials and judges in correcting the record and making clear that Barr’s views do not reflect the perspectives of many of our nation’s criminal justice leaders. We embrace a different starting point and a less toxic narrative.
The word “predator” should be familiar to any student of the history of mass incarceration. False narratives about “super predators” were a key driver of the infamous tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s that propelled us further along the road to the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate. Criminal justice reformers on both sides of the aisle are now laboring to undo the decades of harm caused by those narratives and policy choices. It’s deeply disturbing to see them resurrected by our nation’s Attorney General.
Stories are important; the narratives we propound about the causes and history of a problem define not only the solution, but who is included in the solution.
Here’s the real story about the recent history of crime in America: At the beginning of the 1980s, urban communities of color were already isolated and impoverished by the legacy of redlining and disparate education systems. Then they suffered devastating wounds at the hands of the “War on Drugs,” which left a generation of children orphaned by mandatory minimum sentences riddled with racial disparities. The 1990s ushered in even more tough-on-crime policies and left broad swaths of communities disenfranchised and often homeless and jobless due to the collateral consequences of excessive criminal convictions.
Over-incarceration wrought profound and lasting harm on our most vulnerable communities – but these communities have been resilient. Innovative local leaders and organizations worked tirelessly to reclaim their streets, reinvest in their neighborhoods and reimagine a brighter tomorrow. In doing so, they ushered in the “great crime decline.” Crime is now at a historic low in America, and violent crime has fallen by nearly half over the last quarter century.
And most recently, a new generation of prosecutors has joined the fight for safer, more equitable and healthier communities. These leaders, along with like-minded justice system partners, have embraced compassionate science-based approaches to substance use disorder, mental illness and juvenile and young adult justice. We’re wisely using discretion to tackle the most serious crimes and move conduct better addressed with public health responses out of the justice system. We’re protecting the safety of both officers and community members by emphasizing de-escalation rather than reactive violence, and working toward culture change within prosecution and policing. And, our efforts are working.
We are zealous defenders of public safety. And we understand that public safety means safety for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, their family’s income, or their country of origin. Public safety means every child in America should be unafraid to walk down the street, unafraid of crime, unafraid to wear a hoodie, and unafraid that he or she will be torn from parents’ arms.
The falsehoods Barr propagated not only endanger our children, they endanger all Americans. To abandon reform would be to abandon data-driven justice, science, fiscal responsibility, rebuilding public trust, and policies proven to make our streets safer. And equally dangerous is the false narrative that crime is rising and only unquestioning adherence to policies predicated on a “war” on “predators” can keep us safe. These perspectives create fertile ground for authoritarianism.
Seventy current and former criminal justice and law enforcement leaders spoke up to push back against Barr’s lies, because defending public safety also means defending the truth.
Kim Foxx is the State’s Attorney for Cook County Illinois. Miriam Aroni Krinsky is a former federal prosecutor and the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors working towards common-sense, compassionate criminal justice reforms. Bill Lansdowne is the former police chief of the San Diego, San Jose and Richmond police departments.
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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misspelled Bill Lansdowne’s last name due to inaccurate information provided by the contributor.