Criminal Justice Reform Debate Needs Honest Discussion On Policing

An armored police vehicle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aug. 14, 2016
An armored police vehicle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Aug. 14, 2016

There are few things the political left and right in America agree on. Criminal justice reform, however, is one area where these opposing spectrums have found common ground.

Lawmakers of varying political stripes around the country are experiencing an awakening around criminal justice reform. Nationwide, more than 30 states have realized that a different approach to sentencing and corrections is needed to rehabilitate offenders, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer money. 

While worthwhile and long overdue, these reforms are reactive approaches that touch only one aspect of the criminal justice system. Absent from the criminal justice reform movement, especially on the national level, has been any real attempts to critically examine the state of policing. 

Until now.

Policing is tough, and often, thankless work. The vast majority of police officers are fair-minded and excellent at their jobs. But the proliferation of camera phones and body-worn cameras have brought national attention—and outrage—to the militarization of police and the disparate degree to which this militarization has targeted minority communities.

Particularly noteworthy was the shooting of Philando Castile, who was shot in his car while reaching for his license. The situation was live streamed to Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who calmly described what was happening in real time. Explaining why she posted the video, Reynolds said she wanted the world to see how the police often behave. “I want justice,” she declared.

As more videos surfaced of unarmed black men being shot by police officers, the demand for change strengthened exponentially. 

The riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte have pushed proactive reforms – namely, policing – to the forefront of policy discussions. The tension in these and other cities has raised awareness about biases among law enforcement. Reformers have touted more body-worn cameras and increased oversight as possible solutions, but any hope to elicit true progress necessitates a deeper look at the root of this issue: the drug war. 

In 1971, President Nixon declared drug use as “public enemy number one in the United States,” launching decades of tough on crime policies meant to win the war on drugs. To facilitate this paradigm shift, Congress enacted the National Defense Authorization Act, which allowed the Department of Defense to transfer military-grade equipment to Federal and State agencies to combat the war on drugs.

This and other similar grant programs have channeled approximately $4.3 billion to the more than 17,000 police agencies in all states for tactical equipment on the condition that the equipment be used within one year.

And this equipment is indeed being put to use. According to new research, someone is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds in the United States, raising more concern that the war on drugs has not been applied equally.

Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession and four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. This is despite research indicating whites are more likely to sell drugs than blacks and drug use among both races is roughly the same. Prison populations also reflect this disparity. 

It is worth noting that many drug infractions often occur in predominantly black areas, adding to this imbalance.

We’ve dedicated the past 40 years of American history, and more than $1 trillion, to a ruthless and unforgiving war on drugs that has been carried out by the strategic militarization of police. Any honest discussion about policing must begin by admitting the failure of these efforts and the impact it has had on many communities.

And yet, despite our “tough on crime” approach to drug offenses, the United States is facing an unprecedented opiate epidemic that has caused more overdoses than any other period in history and spans socioeconomic distinctions between black and white.

Certain police tactics have caused a backlash against police. But violence against police, of course, is not the means by which to seek substantive policy change. In fact, it should be condemned. But there are serious problems in policing and in the broader criminal justice system that must be addressed. This is no longer a war on drugs; it is a war on the American people and the freedoms that once defined this country.

Major reforms in the criminal justice system must happen now. Reduced sentences for non-violent criminals are good places to start, but the demilitarization of our police forces is even more pressing.

Overly harsh prison sentences and institutional police bias is unfair to America’s citizens and detrimental to all of those dutiful police officers who desire nothing more than to serve their communities.

Erinn Broadus is a criminal justice researcher based in Washington, DC. Jason Pye is the director of communications for FreedomWorks.

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