The argument over policing policy prompted by George Floyd’s death has reached a contrasting climax: on the one hand, protestors have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights marches (in the midst of a pandemic, no less). On the other, we have headlines of crime carnage in New York City, as we try to unravel those policies.

The first thing to realize is that our current incarceration policies reverberate from our past ones, and will continue to do so for the next generation. There is a whole system of cops and robbers that grew up in the environment we made, any alteration of that system will bring change, and change means consequences. The argument is that we have to make wise choices now, to affect the future, since we have kicked the effects of that can down the road for years and years. Something this big and developed does not change for the better in a Facebook-meme instant.

Much of that generational reverberation is the effect of our eating the seed-corn: the number-one indicator that someone will be incarcerated is if a family member has been. If we get all of our policies straight tomorrow (OK, take a minute for ironic guffaws), we will still be paying for the mistakes we made over the next generation. The Europeans had more sensible ideas on incarceration a generation ago, and they are reaping that good harvest today.

The many mentally ill have not been helped, yet. The ecosystem to help them must be pried from the silo of the policing ecosystem (or we raise taxes on already overtaxed New Yorkers, who at the moment are fleeing the city). With no such system, we will still be incarcerating them instead of treating them, with all of the effects of that same cycle we made before: incarceration in American prisons; the worst places in the Western World can only be expected to make them worse).

As for the immediate crime-spike we see in NYC, here are some explanations that still argue against over-incarceration:

Like much else in the modern media world, some of the fuss is pure clickbait distortion. There have been no cuts to budget of the police department yet (other than the anti-crime cops; read on). The cuts will come from ending recruitment, while allowing retirement (which the [City stopped allowing, because the processing was overloaded). Believe me, when cops are actually laid off, you will not be missing it.

This is a textbook example of how media sensationalist bias and the Firefighters First Principle synergize, which is how the over-incarceration mess evolved: outrageous crimes make for headlines waste is never addressed or cut. Instead, it is always “cut our budget, see what happens!” The press is happy to put that into headlines. The policing ecosystem has no interest in making our cutting their budgets easier on us. The media has no interest in keeping our views of amok criminals in perspective relative to sensible policy-making before selling their product.

The media talks to the police a lot more than to those inappropriately incarcerated, so you are hearing that perspective of the story, like we have for decades. Stories of the tens of thousands of men released from jail who quietly rebuild their lives, and go on to redeem themselves in their communities, will have the scant media attention that story has always had.

For the foreseeable future, all these facts of life will dwell alongside unprecedentedly granular media attentions on the crimes they will inevitability commit (with some of the criminals created by our policies): how many of us have seen the footage of the man walking with his child, executed in broad daylight? In the USA, it is not uncommon for a single atrocity to drive a new law, or a new ecosystem of laws. All of these crimes, outliers or not, will be hung around the neck of the “reforming” politician, right or not, competent or not. This is a longtime trope of American politics, which, when extended to its logical conclusion, led us into the Global War on Terror.

What is unquestionably true is the fact that we had to empty the jails to mitigate the pandemic, which created much of the spike in crime. There is simply no alternative. Jails (and wars) always and everywhere worsen plagues.

But the problem we have in doing so is a validation of the libertarian argument that jail should only be for those that truly deserve it: if we were able to channel the spirit of Pharaoh and ask him if a rapist or murderer should be in jail, he would say yes. But, what about someone who follows an unapproved religion? The difference is the difference between crimes and violations. The clarity of the difference is a constant of human existence, across nations and times. For both Pharaoh and Mayor DeBlasio, rape is rape. The difference is in the violation it was to be a Jew in Egypt and not in NYC.

Now that we have jailed all these people for crimes AND violations we wind up with: if everybody is a criminal, nobody is, and since something had to be done to mitigate the plague, the cages had to be emptied. So, criminals are mixed in with violators. And they are committing crimes (in ancient Egypt, the papyrus brayed the story, and the people persecuting the Jews were thought right after all).

With the Pharaoh-criminals and violators released together, disbanding the anti-crime unit was a terrible idea, with terrible timing. These cops focus on the worst of the worst (we might argue they are the ones doing real policing, for real crimes, about 5% of their time, and not violations). This was just pure incompetent arrogance, on the part of the Mayor.

That our system lacks the wisdom to know which prisoners are safe to release, and which are not, is just another libertarian lesson that those who expect wisdom and judgement from the government are expecting too much. That lack of wisdom, combined with widespread powers of incarceration, is what has set the country ablaze over incarceration in the first place.

The poles of the contrast also plug perfectly into the usual opposing narratives of Team Red vs Team Blue. Expect the same progress.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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