Discriminatory laws aren’t the cause behind mass incarceration. Laws in general are not enforced as much as they should be, and people have lost respect for the justice system.
I have often seen conservatives in the United States run for the woods whenever they hear the words “justice system reform”. Conservatives generally do not like change, especially when nothing appears to be wrong. “The United States may have high incarceration rates, but very few people are in prison unjustly,” we think. This is generally true; however, we should ask ourselves why we have more criminals per capita than any other country in the world.
For these abnormally high incarceration rates, the Left blames a long history of institutionalized racism. Today, they claim, drug laws disproportionately affect the black community. This is a true statement; however, it is often misused as a club to argue that the laws are racist. If it were true that laws which disproportionately affect black Americans are racist, then murder laws would also be a target of the Left. There is evidence to suggest that punishment for drug laws may be racially connected, but no evidence suggests that the law itself is racist, which is an important distinction. In fact, implementing the law correctly would eliminate this racial disparity.
The Right says a broken culture that has no respect for the law is the cause of high incarceration rates. Although the validity of this statement can be hard to judge objectively, the real reason for high incarceration rates is entirely different.
The reason for our high incarceration rates is that we do not consistently respect and uphold our laws. We are harsh about some things, and not as harsh about others.
The United States has a justice system that sometimes incentivizes crime. Embedded in our government at all levels lies a destructive lack of desire to punish crime. We have sanctuary cities that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws. We have district attorneys who refuse to prosecute what they see as ‘minor’ crimes. For six years during President Barack Obama’s administration, we had an Attorney General in Eric Holder who turned a blind eye to crimes when it benefitted him politically, such as refusing to prosecute financial institutions.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has been one of the more notorious proponents of this permissive culture of not enforcing laws. In fact, Mr. Krasner has gone as far as to fire prosecutors who did not align with his political agenda. Several of those fired were in the homicide division of the District Attorney’s Office. Included among them were officials dealing specifically with drug enforcement and civil asset forfeiture, both significant areas of focus of his campaign.
One homicide prosecutor named Andrew Notaristefano was responsible for convicting dozens of murders and had been employed by the office for more than a decade. He was released by Krasner “without explanation,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The importance of punishing crime cannot be understated. The justice system is lacking in this regard, particularly in two areas. Federal immigration and drug laws in cities and states all across the country are not being enforced.
One year ago, the number of cities that do not follow federal law concerning illegal immigrants (AKA sanctuary cities) was nearing 500. There are five states – California, Connecticut, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont – that have laws limiting police assistance to federal immigration agents. Other states have police departments that pay little attention to the issue.
“It is more difficult to judge how much liberty has been sacrificed due to certain laws when the laws are not being properly enforced.”
States are not enforcing federal marijuana laws, either. United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged how state and local police forces have been ineffective at enforcing marijuana laws recently. He even suggested that there is not much that can be done at the federal level. “We’re not going to be able, even if we desired, to take over state enforcement of routine cases that might occur,” he said.
This is not an argument for strict marijuana laws. It is, however, an argument for strict enforcement of all laws. It is more difficult to judge how much liberty has been sacrificed due to certain laws when the laws are not being properly enforced.
For example, speed limit laws in the United States are not strictly enforced. Therefore, many people, perhaps even a majority, speed regularly. If the speed limit rules were enforced strictly and unanimously, two things would happen. 1. People would start to obey the speed limit. 2. People would begin petitioning to raise the speed limit, because it is often set too low in their view.
Instead, neither of these happen because the law is not enforced. Of course, this is an example where the consequences are not so dire, but this idea holds true for all laws.
To cite another example where proper law enforcement reduces crime, look at recent effects on illegal immigration at the southern border. From the day of President Trump’s election to March 2017 (a four-month period), illegal immigration at the border decreased by 60%. This includes two months during which Mr. Trump was president; however, the mere threat of Mr. Trump’s policies caused illegal immigration to begin declining significantly after four consecutive months of increase during the end of President Obama’s second term.
Authorities should enforce the law to the fullest extent. Not enforcing the law creates a culture of permissiveness about the law, one where those who are not criminal commit criminal acts because there is a common knowledge that tells them they will not be punished.
It may be counter-intuitive, but a significant reason for our high rates of incarceration comes from a lack of punishing crime. When authorities decide to focus less attention on certain types of crime, people begin to forget the importance of obeying the law. And when people forget to follow the law, they have less incentive not to commit crimes, making them susceptible to being arrested.