The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats must control the crime narrative before it controls them

Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, listens to community leaders while visiting a youth baseball game held by the Chicago Westside Sports, a part of the Chicago Police Department's Police Athletic League, on July 22. (Samuel Corum/Pool/AP)

There’s no denying it: Homicides and gun violence are spiking across America. FBI data estimates a 25 percent increase in homicides from 2019 to 2020, with preliminary 2021 data showing further increases. And there are some increasingly audible whispers among some liberal strategists that this could cost Democrats elections in 2022 and beyond.

But that’s far from inevitable, as long as Democrats don’t rely on outdated tactics. Instead, the party can stake out a bold, empathetic vision for criminal justice, taking control of the crime narrative before that narrative takes control of them.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, the majority of Americans — Democrats and Republicans — view crime as a serious problem. Roughly one third of respondents deemed it “extremely serious” — the highest percentage in 20 years.

Unfortunately, Democrats have historically responded to rising crime in two ways. The first is posturing as tough, but not quite as tough on crime as Republicans. This is sometimes a successful electoral strategy (see Eric Adams’s victory in the New York mayoral Democratic primary) — but can result in dangerous policy (see again: Eric Adams’s victory). The second is more problematic: denying crime as a salient issue in the first place, an unconvincing argument that cedes fertile political ground to the GOP. Both approaches also pose potential harm to the Black and brown communities and people whom crime — and criminal justice policy — disproportionately affects.

Democrats need a new path. When they let Republicans define what it means to be tough on crime, it leaves progressive proposals vulnerable to dismissal — as evidenced by the bipartisan backlash to “defund the police.”

“The threat that public alarm over crime will trigger a punitive turn in policy is real,” New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz warns. “But the best way for the left to counter that threat is not to downplay concerns about rising murder rates, but rather to insist that such violence only underscores the necessity of progressive reform.”

President Biden has demonstrated some understanding of this philosophy, but is too quick to revert to the old playbook. In a town hall last week, he listed off important ideas such as funding more social workers and psychiatrists. But he couched these proposals in antiquated right-wing frameworks, reminiscing about his home city of Wilmington, Del., where cops “knew who owned the local liquor store” and “who the best ball players are.”

Democrats have to offer their own 21st century vision for reducing crime. Otherwise, the GOP will fill the vacuum by continuing to blame Democratic policies and leaders for homicides, even though the increases have occurred in cities with both Republican and Democratic mayors, and in cities that have increased and decreased police budgets. And Republicans will ignore the pandemic’s economic distress, spike in substance abuse and limited in-person educationall factors linked with violent crime.

And speaking of factors Republicans want to ignore, Democrats should talk about Republican guns. As Eoin Higgins reports for FAIR, 22 million guns have already been sold in 2021, nearly on par with the record 23 million sold during all of 2020. Likely over 75 percent of last year’s homicide increase was a result of gun violence. Gun reforms such as background checks are a widely popular first step toward curbing these trends.

Democrats can apply the same logic to other areas of criminal justice reform. Americans prefer rehabilitation to mass incarceration, and while a March 2021 Ipsos poll found only 18 percent of Americans favored defunding the police, more than double that (43 percent) supported “redirecting a portion of the police budget for social services” — in other words, a more accurate description of defunding the police. Last week, a non-police pilot program in New York reported increased assistance and fewer unnecessary hospitalizations. As John Pfaff writes for the New Republic, so long as their funding isn’t directly linked with police cuts, these programs are popular.

And if Democrats broaden the conversation to address societal causes of crime and violence, they can propose systemic solutions with cascading benefits such as broader access to health care. When states expanded Medicaid between 2001 and 2008, both violent crime and property crime rates noticeably dropped, as substance abuse treatment increased by 20 percent. The White House is attempting to scale up similar treatments — an initiative that should be better promoted to the public.

With control of both the White House and Congress, Democrats shouldn’t squander this chance to propose bold alternatives to our carceral state. If they can muster up the courage, they can make our country safer, reshape the criminal justice narrative, avoid the grievous political and policy errors of the past and articulate a new vision for a more just society.

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