Blog No. 68 Lessons from Baltimore: In the Eyes of the Beholders?

The death of Freddie Gray and the ensuing riots became the perplexing kind of event for which the response to many, perhaps most, observations might be “Yes (or perhaps), but….” For example:

Did Gray’s death appear to indicate negligence or worse on the part of the police? Yes, but the exact cause of his fatal injury is still unclear and the explanation of the accused officers remains to be heard. Legal analysts disagree as to whether the case was “over-charged” by the prosecutor.

Was racism a factor in the incident? Perhaps, in some sense, but Baltimore is conspicuously different from Ferguson: three of the accused officers were themselves African American, as are the Mayor and the Police Commissioner and approximately half the police force.

Did Gray’s death reflect longstanding tensions between the police and the community? Yes, but apportioning responsibility for those tensions is difficult. The city has been plagued for years by accusations of excessive force by police, but the police have the difficulty of patrolling many neighborhoods with high crime rates.

Did aggressive (“broken window” or “zero tolerance”) tactics by Baltimore police contribute to community hostility? Yes, but a strong argument can be made that such tactics, when implemented appropriately, are an effective measure in reducing crime.

Are high crime rates a product of poverty and lack of opportunity? Yes, but if such conditions help explain criminal conduct they do not justify it.

Does the performance of Baltimore schools bear some responsibility for conditions in the city? Yes, but Baltimore’s per pupil expenditures are among the very highest in the nation.

Could looting and burning be considered a form of social protest? Yes, but some, and possibly many, of those who looted and burned appear to have done so simply because they enjoyed it and felt they could get away with it.

Given the inherent complexities and contradictions created by the many “yes, buts” it is inevitable that different observers have taken different lessons from Baltimore’s tragic experience. Kathleen Parker writing in The Washington Post commented on the impact of race in forming views in a column titled “Baltimore, race and matters of perception.” She concluded with what we regard as a wise prescription: “As a diverse nation, we’ll never all see things exactly the same way, nor would we want to, but we might at least strive to recognize our own biases and judge our own perceptions as harshly as we do others.’”

One issue as to which perceptions clearly differ involves the hostile relations between the police and the community. An April 24 story in The New York Times, “Baltimore’s ‘Broken Relationship’ With Police,” chronicled the history of complaints against the city based on police conduct as well as expensive settlements the complaints produced. Yet the Baltimore police have an undeniably daunting task: according to FBI data for 2013 released in March of this year, Baltimore was the sixth most dangerous city in America. (See Law/Street, “Crime in America 2015: Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities in America.” Moreover, a December 8 story in The Baltimore Sun, reported on a joint press conference at which Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts announced—and presented data showing-that “one year after undertaking a broad reform plan for the Police Department, complaints against officers have fallen sharply along with a drop in crime.” Yet only five months later, in the wake of Gray’s death and the ensuing riots, the Mayor requested the Justice Department to investigate the city’s police department. The request is understandable, but may have the unfortunate effect of undermining the authority of Commissioner Batts to press ahead with the reform program he had initiated.

Differences in perception are also evident in broader issues of policy. Such differences were displayed in the op-ed pages of The New York Times, in columns by David Brooks and Paul Krugman. In a May 1 column, Brooks reviewed the very considerable resources, both governmental and private, that had been deployed to address poverty in the nation, in Baltimore, and in Sandtown, the very neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived. He concluded that simply spending money could not solve the underlying problems:

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

According to Brooks, what is needed is “a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” He concluded glumly that, “Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.”

Three days later, Krugman, although not mentioning Brooks by name, expressed his exasperation with such ideas: “It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values.” Krugman’s solution is the familiar liberal prescription, calling for the provision of still more resources: “The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages.” We find Brooks’s analysis persuasive, but its weakness is that it gave no hint of the kinds of actions that might be taken to repair the “invisible bonds of relationships” that he found missing. On the other hand, in dismissing the importance of values, Krugman ignored the cogent evidence offered by Brooks and others that the benefit from governmental programs is limited.

A May 5 essay in The Economist noted with apparent bemusement the intramural debate in the Times and accused Brooks and Krugman of “the soft bigotry of lazy abstraction” by failing to address the problem of most pressing concern to Baltimore’s citizens: the performance of its police department. Both pundits, The Economist suggested, should heed the advice of their colleague Ross Douthat who had written that, “no issue looms larger than the need to discipline, suspend and fire police officers who don’t belong on the streets—and the obstacles their unions put up to that all-too-necessary process.”

Here again, however, “Yes, but” intrudes to reflect a symmetry of diverging analyses. Jelani Cobb, writing in the Talk of the Town section of the May 11 New Yorker, insisted that policing was only part of the problem:

Talk to people in Baltimore—or Ferguson or Staten Island—and invariably you hear criticism of the police not as the police but as a symbol of an entire web of failed social policies, on education, employment, health, and housing. The real question is not one of police tactics: whether the use of body cameras can reduce civilian complaints or whether police-brutality cases should be handled by independent prosecutors. The real question is what life in an American city should be.

Among the announced and potential candidates for President, Hillary Clinton had the most extensive comments, choosing to focus on issues of criminal justice. She gave a speech in New York on April 28, as the protests in Baltimore were continuing. While Clinton referred explicitly to Baltimore, she understandably did not attempt to assess in any detail the causes of the fraught relationship between the city’s police and the community. She merely spoke of the need to restore the bonds of respect between police and the community in Baltimore and elsewhere. As to particulars, she endorsed the recommendations for reform made by the President’s Task Force and went further by urging that every police department in the country be equipped with body cameras.

Turning to prisons and punishment, Ms. Clinton called for an end to “mass incarceration,” citing the too familiar statistic that over two million Americans are incarcerated. Clinton urged reform of arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences, use of probation and drug diversion programs for low level offenders, and more appropriate treatment for those suffering from mental illness. Citing the de-institutionalization of those who had been in mental health facilities, she observed: “Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions.” Although Clinton’s speech was limited in scope and detail, we thought it was a useful contribution to the national dialogue.

Clinton’s speech drew little comment from Republicans with the notable (and curious) exception of Mitt Romney, who criticized Clinton and denied that there was any such thing as mass incarceration. Yet something is surely amiss when the United States, which makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has more than 20 percent of its prison population. Moreover, the prison population is only a part of the iceberg. If one adds those on probation or parole, the total population under “corrective supervision” is a staggering 6,900,000. Some have defended the extraordinary growth of our prison population as a cause of declining crime rates. But several studies, conflicting and inconclusive, suggest on balance that the effect of mass incarceration on crime rates, if any, may be modest. And the cost is considerable. Criticizing mandatory minimum sentencing laws in The New York Review of Books, Judge Jed S. Rakoff summed the costs and benefits:

Put another way, the supposition on which our mass incarceration is premised—namely, that it materially reduces crime—is, at best, a hunch. Yet the price we pay for acting on this hunch is enormous. This is true in the literal sense: it costs more than $80 billion a year to run our jails and prisons. It is also true in the social sense: by locking up so many young men, most of them men of color, we contribute to the erosion of family and community life in ways that harm generations of children, while creating a future cadre of unemployable ex-cons many of whom have learned in prison how better to commit future crimes. And it is even true in the symbolic sense: by locking up, sooner or later, one out of every three African-American males, we send a message that our society has no better cure for racial disparities than brute force.

Rand Paul has expressed similar views in joining several other Republicans who contributed essays to a collection published by the Brennan Center, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice. Paul wrote:

African Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, but are more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested for drug possession. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws have also contributed to fatherlessness in these communities. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million. These policies tear apart families, weaken communities, and ultimately make us less safe.

The effects described by Judge Rakoff and Senator Paul have unquestionably been felt in Baltimore and contributed to the disintegration of neighborhoods within the city.

The other Republicans contributing to the Brennan Center book and suggesting various reforms included Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. Thus, Romney seemed out of step not only with Clinton, but with most leading Republicans. We had noted in our previous blog, No. 67, that there were growing signs of bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform well before Baltimore. We mentioned the Coalition for Public Safety, which has brought together such unaccustomed bedfellows as the Koch brothers and the leftward Center for American Prosperity, but the momentum is much wider. An April 27 story in The New York Times was headlined “2016 Candidates Are United in Call to Alter Justice System,” and cited not only Hillary Clinton, but also initiatives and proposals by Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. In addition to the presidential hopefuls, various Congressional efforts at reform are being worked on by Senators Mike Lee, John Cornyn and Rob Portman, and Congressman James Sensenbrenner. Clearly, there is no need for Republican candidates to take a back seat to Hillary Clinton in addressing issues of criminal justice.

Indeed, reform of the criminal justice system includes not only matters of policing and sentencing but a central issue not mentioned in Clinton’s speech: how we treat prisoners during their period of incarceration and prepare them for re-entry into the community. In recent years, emphasis on retribution and deterrence has shifted the focus away from rehabilitation. In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on March 23, Justice Anthony Kennedy observed that, “The correction system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government.” The 2012 Republican Platform put it well:

While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community. Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.

While little has been done in Congress to advance that worthy goal, it plainly deserves renewed attention.

Jeb Bush’s views on criminal justice, like those of Hillary Clinton, have changed significantly (“evolved”) over time. While he once called for building more prisons and emphasizing “punishment over therapy” for juvenile offenders, Bush has since supported criminal justice reform, arguing that incarceration can harden low-level lawbreakers into career criminals. In the wake of Baltimore, Bush did not focus on criminal justice but sought to address Baltimore’s fundamental problems or, as Jelani Cobb put it, “what life in an American city should be.”

In a May 6 op-ed piece in The Chicago Tribune, Bush emphasized three themes: education reform, the importance of strong families and improving conditions for business. Advocating educational reform is a familiar topic for Bush (who has maintained his support for Common Core despite mounting criticism from the right). With respect to families, Bush had this to say:

If our government leaders want to attack poverty, they should first acknowledge that an effective anti-poverty program is a strong family, led by two parents. The evidence on this is incontrovertible. And conservatives should not be afraid to say that as the family breaks down, so does opportunity. Our goal should be to build up families.

We are sympathetic to that argument and, indeed, President Obama has spoken of “absent fathers” in describing Baltimore’s dire conditions. The difficulty is that no one has figured out how to reach the elusive goal of building up families. As critics were quick to point out, and as we reluctantly acknowledged in Blog No.26, “Poverty and Marriage,” past efforts by the government to promote marriage have been costly and ineffective. We are inclined to the view urged by some, that rather than attempting to promote marriage, priority should be given to discouraging the bearing of children by single parents. (See Francis Berry, “Baltimore riots reflect breakdown of family structure,” Chicago Tribune, May 5) But that will not be easy either.

In our view, there are many lessons to be learned from Baltimore, not all of them agreed upon, and none of them easy to apply. Perhaps the most obvious candidate for reform is the collection of issues encompassed under the heading of criminal justice reform. As we discussed in Blog No. 67, the President’s Task Force called for the establishment of a national commission on criminal justice. It has since been reported that Senator Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, is considering proposing such a commission. We are aware of the pitfalls of commissions, and the difficulty of bringing their proposals to fruition, but we believe that here the idea of a commission is one that may well have merit.

Apart from matters of criminal justice, the many issues raised by Baltimore’s experience and continuing plight appear too diffuse and politically divisive to lend themselves to a commission or, very likely, to action by Congress. Nevertheless, they warrant the continuing attention of the public and discussion and debate among our political leaders. In the case of Baltimore, we hope the debate can be carried on with a minimum of rancor and with an eye to maximum creativity. Just one example of the latter, was offered by William Galston, in The Wall Street Journal in “Pittsburgh’s Revival Lesson For Baltimore.” Galston suggested that Baltimore might follow the example of Pittsburgh and he explained how that city has revitalized itself by harnessing public and private resources to encourage entrepreneurship and new forms of industry:

Government, nonprofits and the private sector must come together around a long-term blueprint for growth and job creation. Institutions such as Johns Hopkins University will have to do a better job of commercializing the fruits of their research and integrating their activities with the city. Only a vigorous, self-sustaining economy can offer the opportunity needed the break the cycle of hopelessness in neighborhoods like Sandtown.

Would the Pittsburgh example work for Baltimore? Galston admitted that he didn’t know and we certainly do not. But it surely exemplifies the kind of attitude that Baltimore needs.

3 thoughts on “Blog No. 68 Lessons from Baltimore: In the Eyes of the Beholders?

  • It is time to rationally reflect on recent happenings, and start really thinking about what needs to be done to impact positive change as opposed to unmitigated destruction. This is not just a systemic problem, not to be blamed solely on the government, racism and discrimination, or any other singular cause. The issues this country and our generation face are multi-faceted and complex and need to be approached as such.
    I’ve been sickened more by the media and people using recent tragedies to push their individual agendas than anyone else through all of this, as polarizing these issues for a week and then moving on to the next one to get ratings is part of the cancer that keeps these cycles going. It’s time for us all to take a step back and look at the big picture – socially, economically and politically.
    These problems may surely start (and likely end) at the top of our society with our politicians and the like, but the only way we will ever see REAL hope and change is if it starts from the bottom with the public. The United States needs a return to family values, and the spirit of working with each other as opposed to against. I thought this article in the Economist did a good job of approaching this subject with little bias and minimal pre-judgement, which is quite an accomplishment nowadays, a worthy quick read:

  • Years ago, I read James Michener’s last book, “This Noble Land”. This man had more wisdom in his pinkie than most elected politicians. His vision for America deals with inner cities, the need for computer skills through education, education, education,– be it High Schools, Community colleges, etc. A platform must be established and supported for disenfranchised and minorities. Michener’s vision prevails today. Has it happened? Be careful who you vote for.

  • This is no doubt a convoluted problem…and to add to that mix, I have read that Freddie Gray had been convicted of selling heroin in the recent past. Instead of being assigned jail time, he was given 100 hours of community service. IF this is true, perhaps he would be alive today serving his sentence in a penal institute rather than dead, had he been sentenced as one would have expected. We’ve thrown money at issues of education, poverty, community reform, and have received little productive from them. The need for stronger families and two parent households are the most compelling solution I’ve heard, but again, how to accomplish this? The frustration we feel, along with much of the inner city community, as we watch rioters/looters burn down small businesses as well as large businesses like CVS, only to be excused by some in the media and political arena as misguided rather than criminal, makes it hard to be too hopeful. By all means, investigate and prosecute as needed, police who have acted inappropriately. But I fear that will not solve much of the problem with our inner cities.

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