WASHINGTON – Police and prisons are the successful answer to a rather narrow question: Can overwhelming force and routine incarceration bring temporary order to impoverished and isolated urban communities?
Baltimore in the early 2000s answers in the affirmative. By 2005, a city of about 600,000 people recorded more than 100,000 arrests. Violent crime declined (for this and other reasons). In the process, however, the local government undertook a comprehensive level of police-supervision.
Was it worth it? Public order – the security of life and property – is the first commitment of government. In any part of the world, rule by armed teenagers – juvenilocracy – is among the worst of the political philosophic options. People will put up with much to avoid this outcome.
Yet clearly, some Baltimore neighborhoods began to feel more occupied than served. An element of the police – on the evidence, a relatively small element – became desensitized during its daily application of power. One result can be dehumanization, which may help explain Freddie Gray’s long, last trip. But some of the worst outcomes are not found in abuses of the system but in its design: a cycle of incarceration and return that reinforces criminality.
Today’s vocabulary word, taken from medicine, is “iatrogenic.” It means a disease caused by a medical treatment; an attempted cure that becomes a complication. The mass incarceration of juvenile offenders is iatrogenic. It leads to routinely high recidivism rates and has predictable, negative consequences for education and employment. By one estimate, 66 percent of juveniles who are incarcerated never return to school, which, along with the stigma of a felony, dramatically undermines their prospects in the labor market.
So, the imposition of order in impoverished communities through police and prisons is possible but costly, prone to abuse and probably unsustainable at the scale we have seen.
Public policy related to concentrated, intergenerational urban poverty requires a better question. What can be done to encourage economically and socially healthy communities where order is self-creating rather than imposed?
Government has not been very good at this project. It has been good over the last several decades at taking the elderly out of poverty. But it has been far less successful in encouraging the type of urban renewal that runs deeper than gentrification.
The reason reflects the complexity of the problem (recently and vividly described in Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”). Large economic trends, particularly globalization and the technological revolution, have pushed the blue-collar economy in many places into a permanent slump. Wages have stagnated or declined and workforce participation has fallen. At the same time, the connection between childbearing and marriage has been broken. Chronically stressed parents – often single parents – have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children. Community institutions, including public schools, are weak, providing children with fewer extracurricular opportunities. When children get into trouble – as children from all classes are wont to do – there is little support structure for addiction treatment and legal help.
We cannot expect police power to confront these complex, interrelated difficulties. But someone, in addition to local religious and community leaders, needs to try.
On the right, Rep. Paul Ryan has at least attempted a response to the problems of urban poverty. His discussion document, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” proposed expanded wage subsidies, revision of mandatory-minimum sentences and more flexibility with education funding. Sen. Marco Rubio’s welfare reform proposal also included subsidies for low-wage jobs but largely avoided the making of policy, preferring a large block grant (which he calls a Flex Fund). This assumes the states and localities are bristling with good policy ideas – a highly questionable assumption – and smacks of a cop-out. (Sen. Rand Paul, by using Baltimore as the punch line for a tasteless joke on conservative talk radio – he was “glad [his] train didn’t stop” – revealed the veneer of his concern for urban America.)
On the left, President Obama pushed in the aftermath of Baltimore for early childhood education, more lenience for nonviolent drug offenses and better job training. Hillary Clinton proposed to end “the era of mass incarceration,” improve health services and require body cameras for police.
I could pick and choose several good ideas out of a composite list. But all these proposals have something in common: They are obviously insufficient to the scale of the problem. Much about the justice and unity of our country will depend on the increased ambition of their next iteration.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.