2020 was a major opportunity for criminal justice reform. Elite progressives squandered it.

One of the many entrances to CHAZ / CHOP. June 13, 2020. (photo: Derek Simeone)

Even before George Floyd was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses, there was a growing appetite to reform policing and the U.S. criminal justice system.

In 2018, the FIRST STEP Act, the first meaningful criminal justice reform effort in over a decade, was passed by a Republican Congress. It was signed into law by a sitting Republican president- one who admitted from the White House that sentencing in America is racially biased against Black Americans, no less.

Prior to 2018, an awareness had been growing for some time in sectors which never before had been willing to entertain such a thing as institutionalized unfairness in the crown jewel of the U.S. Constitution- the U.S. legal system.

Admitting flaws in the legal system wasn’t even the half of it, either.

Over the past decade, local police departments had been inundated with surplus and leftover military equipment- and people were finally starting to notice. No-knock warrants were in the cross-hairs. Civil asset forfeiture- that ill-considered policy which turned local police departments into bounty hunters concerned with seizing property from those suspected of drug crimes and not much else- was finally being discussed like it was a bad thing.

Perhaps this was because the backlog of untested rape kits containing DNA samples was and is starting to stink to high heaven. The injustice of it all was starting to occur to those who most needed to have this breakthrough.

For profit prisons were on the idealogical chopping block- which was great, because for-profit prisons are perhaps the single worst idea in a free market economy, second perhaps only to child labor. Neither is a free market ideal.

Yes; criminal justice reform was growing in popularity, across all sectors. Democrats were all for it; Independents were for it. Even Republicans were joining the party.

The idea was beginning to appeal to all demographics. Students of Democracy might call that a strike when the iron is hot kind of moment; when this level of critical mass is reached, and everyone gets on the same team, that’s when we can really get things done.

Then George Floyd was murdered and everything changed.

What should have been the spark which ignited renewed efforts to clean up the U.S. criminal justice system and policing reform sparked something else instead.

A massive spike in violent and property crime which continues to this day.

According to the FBI, the murder rate in the U.S. rose 30% last year. It was the single biggest jump since the agency started tracking six decades ago.

The people who are blaming this phenomenon on COVID-19 are the same ones claiming the current inflation we are experiencing is transitory; both groups are gradually falling silent as the hard data pours in to jolt them out of fantasyland.

COVID-19 happened to the whole world; in the U.S. the murder rate rose 30%. Other countries saw a marked drop in crime. So many more people staying home in the U.S. should have reduced the crime rate. It didn’t.

Incidentally, like the rise in crime, inflation isn’t going anywhere either.

There was really only one reason criminal justice and policing reform efforts were finally starting to pick up serious steam across America prior to June 2020- and it wasn’t the injustice, racism, and inhumanity pumping through the U.S. legal and policing system. Those things had always been true and obvious to anyone who’d spent more than three minutes thinking about the subject.

No, it was something else which softened everyone to the idea of criminal justice reform.

Crime was down- way down.

Until last year, that is.

Since the bad old days of the 1990’s at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and the War on Drugs, crime had been falling steadily almost everywhere. New York City was relatively safe again.

With the advent of cell phones, crime went down even more- at least traditional property and violent crime did. Computer crime is a whole new headache, but people aren’t as concerned about that.

Pre-cell phones, it was easier to make someone disappear; it was much easier to disappear yourself- which is why serial killers mostly went away with the advent of cell phones. These days, most everyone is lojacked, GPSed and tracked to within an inch of their sanity.

There are also cameras everywhere now- everywhere. In 2021, the world is like one big casino and everyone is cheating at cards.

Even killers who did manage to get away with it initially were being caught, and that was reducing violent crime, too. Blessedly, DNA evidence was putting the fear of God into would-be murderers, as well it should.

Investigators can now enter an unknown suspect’s DNA sample from a crime scene into a computer and out pops…the face of the unknown killer.

Really puts those untested rape kits into perspective, doesn’t it?

It isn’t only this rapid onset of violent and property crime which is driving people away from efforts to reform the criminal justice system. It isn’t the $2 billion dollars in damage caused by “protestors” during a mere two week period from the end of May to mid-June 2020.

It isn’t even “defund the police” that is driving people away. The movement, and its lamentable name, would have probably been fine- were it not juxtaposed against a major spike in crime.

New converts have abandoned the cause in droves; old converts have even left. Only the die-hards remain.

The real fear is that far-left progressive legislators aren’t going to let not having a better plan in place stop them from ploughing forward with these half-baked, untried, pie-in-the-sky dreams about a police-free society.

As everybody knows, there are others who dream of a police-free society; criminals.

This is not speculation.

Criminals have made excellent use of COVID-19 an its many mitigation measures, excesses and oversights. Everyone having their face covered all the time has been a tremendous boon for career criminals, who theretofore had stood out like a sore thumb in ski masks.

Criminals drained government coffers in California of over $11 billion dollars in COVID-19 unemployment funds. The number might end up being twice that, once the investigation is complete.

Crime is transforming entire areas in the U.S. Huge swaths of major metropolitan areas may never be the same again. Major retailers are shuttering locations, small businesses are closing, companies are relocating their headquarters, people are moving.

The reduction in our appetite for criminal justice reform stems from much more than our fears of being victimized by violent or property crime.

It is a rejection of lawlessness, but most of all it is a plea for equity.

There are certainly people who haven’t been impacted by this crime wave; non-coincidentally, they are the ones still pushing defunding the loudest- on Twitter. Neither have they been impacted by mass incarceration.

There is a simple reason for this: Money.

Wealthy people, even moderately well-off people can afford to live in safe neighborhoods; they live in gated communities patrolled by private security companies. Their houses have the best security systems money can buy; plus cameras and that thing which frightens and deters modern criminals the most:

24-hour remote surveillance.

If crime goes up in their neighborhood, this privileged set can simply move to a better one.

Not everyone can afford these luxuries. In fact, most people can’t.

Most working-class Americans, of all parties, don’t want to be guinea pigs for a social experiment involving a police-free society, especially as it doesn’t seem to be working. Even talking about it has coincided with a 30% increase in murder.

Poorer neighborhoods, and voters more economically-disadvantaged than their ivory-tower dwelling counterparts in Manhattan and Hollywood just want the same protection wealthy people pay private security companies to give them.

Why shouldn’t they get it?

As crime as skyrocketed, and voters have abandoned criminal justice reform, elite progressives have, if anything, pushed the most extreme version of it- abolishing the police- even harder. Meanwhile, they have denied, downplayed or outright excused the increase in violent and property crime.

In so doing, they have pushed well-meaning, good people who would have otherwise supported criminal justice reform, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death, right out of the movement.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)