Reformers And Realities

I remember when German Lopez first began writing on criminal law issues at Vox. His posts were both progressive and shallow, reflecting that superficial gloss that people longer on passion than knowledge tend to embrace with the certainty of the righteous. He’s come a long way since then, suffering the slings and arrows of the left for his acceptance of facts even when they fail to push the preferred narrative.

This might not seem particularly brave, but for someone who leans left, enjoyed the camaraderie of the woke and works at Vox, it was damn near begging to be cast as a traitor to the cause. As has become abundantly clear, the gravest enemies of progressives aren’t conservatives, Republicans or white supremacists, but liberals who offer a more viable, realistic, free and less hateful path toward achieving many of the same goals. Authoritarians hate the competition.

So when German wrote a post that not only failed to conform to the most passionate fantasies of criminal law reform activists, they got mad. And angry.

Last year, the US’s murder rate spiked by almost 30 percent. So far in 2021, murders are up nearly 10 percent in major cities. The 2020 increase alone is the largest percentage increase ever recorded in America — and a reversal from overall declines in murder rates since the 1990s.

American policymakers now want answers on this surge. One approach has good evidence behind it: the police.

The pat response to the increase in murders is to point to the drop in property crime. In other words, don’t look at this when we want you to look at that. But that doesn’t reanimate the dead bodies in the street. German runs through the alternatives, the studies, the limits and the problems, but ultimately notes that in addressing an exigent problem, like getting murdered, there is only one thing that can be done immediately. And, indeed, this is what black people who are the victims as well as the perps want because they, like the rest of us, prefer to make it home for dinner alive.

“I know people don’t want to hear this, and I empathize with that,” Anna Harvey, a public safety expert at New York University, told me. “[But] as far as the research evidence goes, for short-term responses to increases in homicides, the evidence is strongest for the police-based solutions.”

There are a great many problems this fails to solve, not the least of which is the fact that racist and violent police culture persists in the ranks. But what it does solve is having cops on the streets, where their presence serves a salutary purpose. People tend to murder each other less in front of a bunch of cops. While correlation does not imply causation, it doesn’t preclude it either.

Had German’s post appeared elsewhere, it likely wouldn’t have gotten the extreme reaction it did. But it was Vox, a fellow traveler to the cause, and that was more than activists could take.

I know Alec as well. He’s a good guy, a smart guy, a former prosecutor turned reformer who wants to improve the legal system. But his accusation that German’s post, and Vox by publishing it, was “copaganda” reflects a phenomenon on the fringe that’s likely to be the death of any hope of achieving viable and sustainable reform. Worse yet, by not rejecting the facts, indisputably facts, that undermine the dream of radical reform, Alec leveled the charge of “lying.” There may be room for honest disagreement, but calling German a liar for being factual in the wrong way is beyond the pale.

There has long been a trend among criminal law reformers, something I was before most of the very popular and loudest proponents at the moment had discovered the internet and changed into big boy pants. But I was hardly their model of a reformer. My approach was incremental, not radical. My approach was to be effective, not fantastical. My approach failed to provide a quick and easy answer to every intransigent problem.

I often lacked an answer to problems that certainly existed but defied a clear solution, and that was deeply unsatisfying to activists who so desperately wanted to “fix” what they perceived to be the problems that they refused to acknowledge that changes had consequences. There were a lot of bad cops, violent cops, racist cops? You bet. Abolish cops? Yeah, well that’s not going to work either. Hard problems beget hard solutions, and sometimes no solutions, or at least not solutions I was capable of figuring out.

But then, the one thing I could not do to find better ways of addressing these problems was indulge in convenient lies to gloss over hard problems. The alternative to bad isn’t necessarily good; it can always get worse. Denying reality almost invariably produces worse problems than the ones we have no. That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems, very real and serious problems, but to pretend that they can be fixed by denying that crime happens, that real people are harmed, that there are bad dudes (and dudettes) out there and without some mechanism to address the exigency of the harm they cause, society will devolve into open warfare, cannot be the answer.

I try to do my best not to criticize my “side” more than necessary. I let a lot of things slide, particularly the now commonplace lies in the characterizations of cases, of defendants and prisoners, whom activists try to turn into perfect victims, usually of racism and always of the system, when there are entirely understandable reasons for why these situations exist and how they were created. For the most part, they misrepresent their claims incessantly, but mostly to their own tribe, so it doesn’t do much harm. After the millionth sad story of how horrible everything is, there isn’t much to say anymore. The true believers believe and the nonbelievers don’t.

But watching German Lopez’s growth over the years, the deepening of his understanding of the problems, the solutions and the needs and wants of real people, and the fact that a site such as Vox, which still maintains a stable of writers who can be trusted to shamelessly spin any story left no matter what facts need to be denied, omitted or changes to reach their outcomes, he deserved to be treated better than this.

For a while, I was deeply concerned that the window of opportunity for effective and sustainable reform was going to close while the activists were still laboring under the delusion that screaming systemic racism at everyone would make crime disappear and give rise to Utopia. I no longer fear that, as the window slammed shut as the body count rose, and we’re now at the stage where failed reformers are attacking someone who shares many of their sympathies like German Lopez for coming to grips with the obvious and going where the facts took him.

12 thoughts on “Reformers And Realities

  1. B. McLeod

    When we can’t banish violence by screaming, beating people, smashing up cars, looting, breaking out windows and setting things on fire, I just don’t know what the world is coming to.

  2. Robert Parry

    The cause of reforming the system was infected by those who want to destroy the system. Decent people see mass shoplifting sprees and gunmen free on the streets as problematic. (You, a reformer, may see it as an inconvenient necessity or a side-effect to be mitigated. A guy like me might see them of as the expected by product of removing the focus of the system from victims. Whatever, we both see problems).

    But the destroyers do not. They see rampant theft as wealth redistribution and a blow against capitalism. They literally chant “what do we want? Free black criminals.”

    The problem for them isn’t linking de-policing with a spike in murder. It’s distracting from the cause of destroying the system.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are two fundamental problems with turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts. The first is that as much as we can focus more on the problems with defendants, which have received too little (none?) attention over the past 40 years, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real victims who suffer real harm, and they can’t be forgotten in the zeal to overcome the excesses.

      The second is that if we can’t reform the system in a way that will be sustainable, so that defendants, victims and the public are more confident that the law serves everyone’s best interests, then the swinging pendulum will again push for excessive harshness, untenable rules like zero tolerance, three strikes and mandatory minimums, and whatever reforms are achieved will fade into the ether when public safety again becomes a primary policy concern.

      My purpose is to be able get off the merry-go-round, not to take it for one wild ride before it spins out of control again.

    1. SHG Post author

      The former is deliberately disingenuous, while I suspect the latter to have gotten caught up in the twitter feedback loop of validation.

Comments are closed.