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The Left Faces a Reckoning on Criminal Justice

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eye on the news

The Left Faces a Reckoning on Criminal Justice

Progressive reforms have devastated mutual trust in black communities. October 18, 2022
Politics and law
Public safety

As the November midterms approach, left-leaning candidates from Pennsylvania to Oregon to Wisconsin have come under intense pressure over growing violence and disorder in American communities—particularly in majority-black neighborhoods, where even everyday actions like sending kids to school, attending a baseball game, or going to the lobby of one’s building to get mail are increasingly fraught with danger. These neighborhoods are experiencing what criminologists call a breakdown in “collective efficacy.” Coined by Harvard’s Robert Sampson, the term refers to the degree of trust among community members and their willingness to intervene to mitigate problems, such as crime. Collective efficacy is how a neighborhood establishes and broadcasts expectations of appropriate and law-abiding behavior. It’s the civilian version of Broken Windows policing, which stresses law enforcement’s role in keeping order and in building neighborhood trust.

Strong social capital—broadly analogous to collective efficacy—is a big reason for the perceived societal advantages of white, Asian, and, perhaps most visibly of all in New York, Jewish communities. At exceptional rates, Jews tend to step in when they see community problems, providing privately funded ambulances for the sick and food delivery for the elderly, for example. They approach crime the same way.

In New York, the Chasidim in Crown Heights have the Shomrim, a decades-old volunteer neighborhood watch. Similarly, all Jewish institutions in the Greater New York City area benefit from the UJA–Federation/JCRC–NY’s Community Security Initiative, which offers everything from advice on physical security systems to help in applying for federal security grants. American synagogues and Jewish schools spend member dues on professional security guards and forge relationships with local police precincts. Facing a 24 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents statewide—with 51 assaults in New York City alone—Jewish federations and their local chapters are providing $130 million for a new nationwide security initiative. All this is a manifestation of collective efficacy, which complements police efforts.

In black communities, collective efficacy had increased in recent decades due to law-enforcement policies aimed at signaling and enforcing good behavior, which fundamentally builds community-wide trust. Proactive policing made it clear that, if necessary, bad actors would be removed from neighborhoods through arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. As a result, more black Americans lived on streets that felt wealthier and free of signs of disorder like drug dealing and prostitution. More black kids could feel safe going to school, knowing that gang activity was monitored. Neighbors in black communities had space to develop a shared sense of trust and social control.

Following a host of criminal-justice reforms that shrunk policing capabilities and constricted consistent and effective prosecution, however, black communities’ social capital has broken down, with blacks bearing the brunt of rising violence. Bail reform, a leading example of these misguided ideas, has been a key plank of the Democratic platform on criminal justice in recent years, from Chicago to Memphis and beyond. The resulting policies, as with New York’s 2020 bail laws, have kept judges from jailing dangerous offenders pretrial, leading to their reoffending at staggering rates. New York’s 2017 Raise the Age law indiscriminately removed consequences for 16- and 17-year-olds, returning them, gun arrest after gun arrest, to the streets and public schools where their presence has escalated tit-for-tat gang violence and terrified students trying to learn. Decriminalization of low-level offenses in major American cities has rapidly degraded certain streets—much of New York City’s Harlem, for example—from peaceful to seedy and unpredictable.

Since 2019, shootings in New York more than doubled and murders have risen by 30 percent. And though only one-fifth of city residents are black, they account for more than 72 percent of shooting victims and 67 percent of murder victims. Black New Yorkers are the victims of rape and felonious assault at more than twice their proportion of the population; 69 percent of shooting suspects, 63.9 percent of murder suspects, 64 percent of robbery suspects, and 58 percent of violent crime suspects are black. This disproportionality is reflected in nationwide statistics, where blacks represent around 13 percent of U.S. residents but more than half of identified homicide victims—and this disparity is growing.

Left-wing criminal-justice policies aimed at elevating blacks have instead devastated collective efficacy in their communities. They did so by removing consequences for criminals, emboldening them to commit more crimes while dissolving community trust. No longer deterred or incapacitated by law enforcement, a new and growing cohort of offenders is making it much harder for neighbors in black communities to trust one another, to step in when they see a problem, and to marshal the social capital that is the bedrock of collective efficacy.

This is especially true because crime is a hyper-local phenomenon, as criminologist David Weisburd has shown. In New York City, for instance, about 1 percent of streets produce about 25 percent of crime, and about 5 percent of streets produce about 50 percent of crime. When policies release dangerous people back into the public, it is among the residents of these concentrated streets—many in black neighborhoods—where the sense of security frays.

It is possible for candidates to win in November by discussing racial privilege and crime—but not by blaming the former for the latter. Instead, progressive politicians who promise black communities a robust, reliable, and respectful criminal justice system may find that the privilege of collective efficacy—of trusting neighbors, classmates, and strangers—is something for which their constituents will vote.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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