Category Archives: Substacked

Criminal Justice Framing and Philosophy: The Crime Wave

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It is campaign season, so let’s talk about how thoughtful politicians running for office might frame their messaging related to criminal justice. (Originally posted here)

Criminal Justice and Public Safety are non-partisan universal issues that affect everyone, but many politicians wrongly define justice in a way that makes no one safer, that solves no serious problems, but that helps candidates that abuse crime statistics to win elections using fear as a motivator for taking people’s votes.

Every single person deserves to feel safe — and actually be safe — in their homes and workplaces, and as they travel about in their daily lives. For this to happen, there must be an ongoing, honest, and accurate assessment of the threats that exist in each environment where we live, work, or recreate. This means carefully and honestly tracking crime waves, and understanding what they are.

Long term, crime in Minnesota is way down since initial European settlement. Frontier mentalities, copious firearms, and other factors fostered a huge crime wave in much of the US, peaking prior to the 1920s. Nationally, the homicide rate peaked at about 10 killings per 100,000 per year, but in the “Wild West,” which included Minnesota, homicides were as common as ten to 15 times that.

That wave ended as the cowboy days waned, over the decades leading up to and including World War 2, and we really haven’t seen crime waves that bad since.

A second national wave in violent crimes including homicide built up in the 1970s and 80s, separating the US from all of the other industrialized nations. This is seen as a result of our nation being awash in poorly regulated firearms, significant economic disparities, and other factors.

Today, our rates of violent crime have dropped significantly, but the factors that support it are still there, so both violent and other crime rates are more likely to rise up in the US than most other places, in short term, often local or regional, waves. The Covid crime wave, largely now abated, was an example of this.

Crime waves are waves, like waves on the water. The largest waves you’ll normally see on a pond or small lake can be measured in inches, while the largest waves you’ll see in an ocean storm can be measured in yards. The US, in terms of criminal violence and other offenses, is like the ocean, compared to other industrialized countries.

The potential range of variation, and the maximum size, of any crime wave is much greater in the US than most other places in the world. This unique threat to life and liberty for every single American is the result of the unique ways in which we’ve treated violence and criminal justice, firearms, and punishment. We are among the most heavily armed populations, we are among the most incarcerated populations, we have a stronger link between racism and violence than most other places, we have a legal system that imposes thought-free sentencing requirements on judges, we foster the sentiments of revenge and rage, we meet violence with violence with the death penalty, and we have a highly militarized police force. These approaches cost money and have not worked as promised. Taxpayers have been duped into supporting a miniature military defense industry that has nothing to do with our national defense. And none of this makes anyone be any safer.

We need good policing, and we need to look at causes of crime even as we attend to consequences. A current example demonstrates this. We are experiencing a mini-crime wave in the theft of certain models of cars that are easy to steal with the use of a readily available technology. Kids — often as young as 11 — have been stealing these cars for joy rides in which the driver can barely see over the wheel. This looks like a crime wave in car theft, but it is such a unique situation that it really should be thought of and addressed separately. In Hennepin County, the County Attorney’s office has been working with municipal police to identify the likely culprits — it is a known subset of kids doing this — in order to approach the families involved. Instead of barging in and laying down criminal charges, the county criminal justice staff are having conversations with families, intervening socially rather than with handcuffs and arraignments. This program started in June 2023, and as of the end of the year, most of the kids for which this intervention happened had stopped breaking the law, and thefts are way down. Nobody’s going to jail, nobody’s going to emergency, the mischief is being managed, and if the car companies do the right thing, maybe it will become harder to for a middle schooler on an errant mission to steal a Kia or a Hyundai.

Thinking. Smarts. Compassion. Understanding. Seeing past the veil of rage through which one sees only retribution. Finding the problem and solving it, instead of reacting to the problem and fumbling through whatever makes one feel good. Justice for all no matter who they are, protection for all members of our society, and the control of crime waves requires a better plan that we are only now starting to see being implemented as a new generation of experts takes the helm. Fund a better police force, a better criminal justice system, and a better prepared and more thoughtful society. That is mid 21st century criminal justice.

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