The Tragedy of Kalief Browder is Still Overshadowed by the Willie Horton Effect

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates provides more essential reading on the Kalief Browder tragedy: “At our implicit behest, a boy was snatched off the streets of New York. His parents were told to pay a certain sum, or he would not be released. When they did not pay, he was beaten and then banished to lonely cell. Browder’s captors then offered him a different way out—pay for your freedom in the political currency of a guilty plea.”

Browder was held in jail at New York’s Rikers Island for almost three years without a trial (a robbery charge was eventually dropped). He committed suicide a few weeks ago. This is the kind of case that should increase pressure for criminal-justice reform, stricter guidelines for police behavior, and the search for alternatives to mass incarceration, but political opportunities can vanish quickly. As Coates writes, “This threat to Browder’s life was birthed by the era of Willie Hortons, three strikes, and super-predators. Bragging about how many people you didn’t jail has, only recently, become supportable politics. It remains to be seen how well it shall endure.”

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Has the chance for bipartisan reform already gone?

Last month National Review editor Rich Lowry suggested as much, writing in Politico that protests in Baltimore against police misconduct (in particular, the death of Freddie Gray from a broken spinal cord while in police custody) are intimidating the police from “doing their job” and are responsible for an increase in the homicide rate during May.* “More people need to be arrested in Baltimore, not fewer,” wrote Lowry. “And more need to be jailed.” As I wrote in an earlier post, “The real message of the [Lowry] column is to warn politicians away from efforts to de-militarize police departments and find alternatives to the mass-incarceration policies of the past few decades. Any spikes in crime will be used against them.”

This week, the Wall Street Journal amped up the resistance toward seeking more just and humane ways of punishing crime, publishing a column by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald on “The New Nationwide Crime Wave” supposedly caused by the “Ferguson effect” of police being hampered by public criticism.

Researchers who have been studying crime statistics for decades rather than months do not agree with MacDonald. In USA Today, criminology professor James Alan Fox warns against “mass (media) hysteria about lawlessness.” As for “short-term spikes in crime” like that reported in Baltimore, he writes, “Most of the time, these spikes are merely statistical anomalies that dissipate as soon as the news focus shifts to other matters.”

Waving away scare stories as “statistical anomalies” is the kind of thing that earns you terrible reviews in presidential debates, so don’t expect candidates to cite the Northeastern University professor when they start jousting later this summer.

Most voters and campaign contributors live far from neighborhoods at high risk for violence, and Cornell professor Joseph Margulies writes that a “colonial” approach to fighting crime can pay off politically: “that is the unappreciated threat that looms when the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal believes it has discovered evidence of a ‘nationwide crime wave.’ It is a dog whistle that summons distant politicians to ‘fix’ a misunderstood crime problem of the inner city. But this is precisely how criminal justice policy took shape over the past five decades. Those least affected by crime…imposed rules that governed the lives of those affected most directly and who experienced it as part of their daily lives. This colonial approach to criminal justice is exactly what reformers are trying to fix.”

The colonial approach does not extend much sympathy to someone like Kalief Browder, who might as well have been imprisoned in Borneo as on Rikers Island. As Coates suggests above, it takes political courage to actually do something to prevent more cases like Browder’s, knowing that, inevitably, a suspect of a petty crime will be released onto the streets and commit a violent act. Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul has talked about the Browder case on the campaign trail (“We should have speedy trials in our country”); it will be interesting to see how he responds if an opponent raises the “more people need to be jailed” argument.

*Lowry also objected that deaths at the hands of the police get more attention than other shootings: “If you are a young black man shot in the head by another young black man, almost certainly no one will know your name…. No one will protest, or even riot, for you.” This week, there was a march in the Dorchester section of Boston prompted by the fatal shooting of a black 16-year-old by two other teenagers. The Boston Globe reported: “as marchers made their way to the corner with a police escort, they sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and chanted ‘What do we want? Peace!’”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 11 months ago
"Tough on crime" is also tough on law enforcement. Police fatality rates run 30% higher in republican dominant states vs. democrat dominant states.

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