Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
“Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community” is seventh on the list of the Trump White House’s eight top issues. “One of the fundamental rights of every American is to live in a safe community,” the White House website proclaims. Who would not affirm this expansion of the list of our fundamental rights? Or the importance of honoring “our men and women in uniform” and supporting “their mission of protecting the public”?
But the website veers into the surreal. “The Trump Administration will be a law and order administration,” it tells us, for a country that “needs more law enforcement.”
Can we really swallow that?
Consider the numbers: Nearly one out of every 100 adult Americans is incarcerated, or more than 2 million people. The world has never seen a penal system like this before.
Consider, too, America’s preeminence in imprisoning people. Close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are in U.S. prisons, though only about 5 percent of the world’s population lives between our shining shores.
More than half of our prison population is black or Hispanic, but these are not the groups that saw the largest increase in imprisonment from 2002 to 2010. That prize goes to white women. The volume of our law enforcement has achieved world-historical magnitude. The idea that we need more law enforcement sends chills down my spine.
The fact of our historic levels of incarceration should provoke us to consider whether perhaps we need not increases in law enforcement but different approaches to criminal justice.
The war on drugs is a driver of a lot of our use of the judicial system and law enforcement. This heavy use may well explain some significant part of increases in levels of violence.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions may be enamored of it, but consider how the war on drugs bloats and disables the judicial system. Fourteen percent of imprisoned Americans have been sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses. And then there are all the violent offenses that flow from the intertwining double helix of drugs and gangs. But that is not all.
In recent years, as many as 32 percent of defendant filings in federal courts, in a given year, are for drug-related cases. This is the biggest category of filings. They are a large category in states, too. In other words, the illegal drug economy overburdens our judicial system and increases prosecutorial workloads. There is good reason to think that this overload helps explain why homicide clearance rates have fallen as low as they have, leading to a phase shift in levels of violence in urban areas. For instance, according to a retired police officer interviewed by NPR, Vernon Geberth, police nowadays face a higher bar in trying to clear a case because overburdened prosecutors want only easy cases. Then, as violence in urban contexts increases, impoverished communities end up ever more entrapped in the protection rackets run by gangs and the international traffickers who employ them.
There is another way.
In 2001, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified these activities as administrative violations. Instead of being arrested, people found in possession of personal-use amounts are ordered to appear before a “dissuasion commission”; the result is treatment, a fine or other administrative sanctions. Drug trafficking remains criminal, but decriminalization of personal-use possession has brought drug dependency out of the shadows. In Portugal, the number of people seeking treatment increased by 60 percent between 1998 and 2011, and adolescent drug use has decreased since the law’s passage. At the same time, the percentage of people in prison for drug violations fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2013. And the overall quantity of illicit drugs seized actually increased, possibly because public-safety resources could be directed to targets higher up the supply chain.
Achieving such results requires not more law enforcement but law enforcement that functions differently. It also requires fiscal reallocations from criminal justice to education, health and human and social services.
The story is not one of shortage. The ratio of law-enforcement officers to both teachers and doctors has crept modestly up over the past two decades; law enforcement’s numbers have kept pace with population growth, which has not been the case for teachers and doctors.
We can and should be proud of the men and women in uniform who keep us safe. But none of us can be proud of the largest system of incarceration the world has ever known. It is a sign that our society is not flourishing. We can honor our police and also find a path toward a more rewarding version of their job, one that relieves them of some portion of the burden of addressing addiction, responsibly shifts fiscal resources to health care, and therefore can direct criminal issues to law enforcement and health issues to health professionals.
We can be proud of all our caring professions — police, teachers, social workers, doctors — and ask that they stand side by side as partners, sharing resources appropriately, as we seek to secure liberty, justice and thriving lives for all.