In the wake of George Floyd’s death, most Americans agree that some reforms are needed for police departments and criminal sentencing laws. Some libertarian or right-leaning organizations are calling for a blanket elimination of qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, the drug war, no-knock warrants, and mandatory-minimums. While many of those need to end, not every proposal is created equal or even a great idea. Some well-intended reforms could even lead to a spike in crime or a further breakdown of order – exacerbating lawlessness in a society already struggling with upholding the rule of law.
Recent rioting, looting, property destruction, and violence in urban enclaves easily remind Americans that police departments are essential. And while the militarization of police and excessive force are serious problems, so is violent crime and a disordered society.
Decades before the 1994 crime bill, lax sentencing laws helped fuel a national crime epidemic that peaked in the 1990s. A centerpiece of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992 was eschewing his party’s soft-on-crime record, resulting in more police on the street and tougher sentencing laws. Who can forget George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad four years earlier that skewered the 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis as soft on crime? When Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, a weekend furlough of Horton, a convicted murderer, led to that “inmate” committing a violent rape, assault, and armed robbery in Maryland. The judge in Maryland refused to extradite Horton back to Massachusetts in fear he would be released from prison again. In many ways, the Horton ad symbolized America’s frustration with lax sentencing laws and the soft-on-crime persona peddled by many judges and politicians.
While one should support the end of no-knock warrants and civil asset forfeiture without due process, at least some mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines have had a positive impact, in that they take sentencing discretion away from the kind of liberal judges that played a part in crime spiraling out of control in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. It’s hard to ignore the rise of state’s enacting mandatory minimum sentencing in the 80s and 90s with the subsequent dramatic drop in crime rates. Also, mandatory-minimums can provide more equality under the law, where race plays much less of a factor with a judge if he is constrained by legislators that set color-blind mandatory-minimum guidelines for violent crimes.
Certainly, reforms for certain mandatory minimums on drug sentences or less violent crimes are worthy of support. North Carolina recently passed two criminal justice reforms in the General Assembly that provide compassion while protecting public safety. House Bill 511, if signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, would allow judges to be given more discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders. Senate Bill 562, or the “Second Chance Act,” is another worthy piece of legislation passed by the General Assembly. The bill gives some non-violent offenders who have remained out of the criminal justice system for years an opportunity to expunge their records. Yet, blanket abolition of mandatory-minimums for more violent crimes or ending three-strike laws could prove deadly for many Americans.
The militarization of police must be scaled back for the simple fact that they are not a domestic army nor warriors that should be trained for the purposes of aggressive escalation of force or killing. Police should never be encouraged by a culture that promotes hardening their response tactics. The National Guard is at the disposal of state governors to quell rampant unrest by protecting life and property.
As a reflection of our fallen nature, every profession has bad actors participating in them. While the video of Floyd’s death is extremely disturbing, overall statistics do not show rampant racism in police departments. In fact, despite the incessant negative media coverage, a June Quinnipiac poll reveals that 77 percent of Americans support the way police do their job in their local communities.
While we have a duty to strive for justice, it will never happen without an ordered society, which requires law enforcement and a rule of law. Most reforms should be cautious and measured. Tearing down law enforcement and continually fomenting division will only result in a return to the high crime era from just a few decades ago and more chaos in the streets.