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Economic Outlook: Bill De Blasio, Stop-and-Frisk, and “A Tale of Two Cities”

Large cities present unique security environments, perhaps none more-so than New York City.  It is therefore unsurprising that the future of “stop-and-frisk” was the focus of much debate during the recent NYC mayoral election. In order to give police officers a tool to proactively prevent crime, “stop-and-frisk” was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio:

The court agreed with the police that officers face uncertain and dangerous situations on the streets—circumstances that can potentially threaten both law enforcement officers and the public. For this reason, police officers need a set of flexible responses that allow them to react based on the information they possess.

Under the Terry ruling, a police officer may stop and detain a person based on reasonable suspicion. And, if the police reasonably suspect the person is armed and dangerous, they may also frisk him or her for weapons.

What exactly is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is defined by a set of factual circumstances that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe criminal activity is occurring. This is different from the probable cause (what a reasonable person would believe) required for an arrest, search, and seizure. If the stop and frisk gives rise to probable cause to believe the detainee has committed a crime, then the police officer should have the power to make a formal arrest and conduct a search of the person.

A Justified Stop

A stop is justified if the suspect is exhibiting any combination of the following behaviors:

  1. Appears not to fit the time or place.
  2. Matches the description on a “Wanted” flyer.
  3. Acts strangely, or is emotional, angry, fearful, or intoxicated.
  4. Loitering, or looking for something.
  5. Running away or engaging in furtive movements.
  6. Present in a crime scene area.
  7. Present in a high-crime area (not sufficient by itself or with loitering).

A frisk is justified under the following circumstances:

  1. Concern for the safety of the officer or of others.
  2. Suspicion the suspect is armed and dangerous.
  3. Suspicion the suspect is about to commit a crime where a weapon is commonly used.
  4. Officer is alone and backup has not arrived.
  5. Number of suspects and their physical size.
  6. Behavior, emotional state, and/or look of suspects.
  7. Suspect gave evasive answers during the initial stop.
  8. Time of day and/or geographical surroundings (not sufficient by themselves to justify frisk).        

 

Does the ability to stop and frisk go too far? Many police departments are at odds with the public in certain neighborhoods concerning what some people deem unwarranted stops. People in high crime areas and in areas with high minority populations often complain they are stopped and questioned at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts in other areas of the city.

When used correctly, the stop and frisk tool benefits the police and average citizens. Curbing crime and ensuring the safety of our on-the-beat public servants, stop and frisk can help us all sleep a little more soundly – a good step in the all-American pursuit of happiness.

At the center of the NYC stop-and-frisk debate is racial discrimination. It was argued that stop-and-frisk unfairly targets minorities, and therefore must be reformed. With the legal appeals process currently ongoing, it is helpful to have a parallel public debate on the matter. First, some statistics:

In 2012, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 532,911 times:
473,644 were totally innocent (89 percent).
284,229 were black (55 percent).
165,140 were Latino (32 percent).
50,366 were white (10 percent).

Demographics of NYC
White: 33.3%
Black: 22.5%
Latino: 28.6%

Based on these numbers, it would appear that the police are unfairly targeting minorities (at least black people), while letting white people go. However, these are not the correct numbers to compare. Remember stop-and-frisk occurs within the context of a particular crime. Police officers are responding to a specific crime, in a specific area, with a description of a suspect which is almost exclusively on physical attributes (including race). To strip police of the power to pursue suspects based on the best information and their knowledge as law enforcement officials puts everybody at risk (including minorities, which the data shows are disproportionately the victims of minority violence).

There should be safeguards put in place to protect minorities, particularly when there is no specific crime / suspect description a police officer is going on, but is rather “racially profiling” an individual. The program itself, however, should not be outlawed. In fact, the data (p. 21) suggests that, if anything, minorities are under-targeted for stop-and-frisks based on how often the suspect matches their race:

The most frequently occurring race/ethnic group within the Violent Felony suspects is Black, accounting for (65.3%). Hispanic suspects account for an additional (26.6%) while White and Asian/Pacific Islanders account for (6.1%) and (1.9%) respectively. The most frequent race/ethnic group within the Stop Question and Frisk subject population is Black, accounting for (54.2%). Hispanic subjects account for an additional (32.5%) while White and Asian/Pacific Islanders account for (9.6%) and (3.2%) of total Stops respectively.

There will always be anecdotal examples of racist cops racially profiling. For the most part, however, police officers are brave men and women who do their job with the greatest integrity they can. They are simply using the information available and their technical knowledge to make the best decisions they can, just like any other professional does. Considering the balanced racial breakdown of NYC police force, one must wonder how anybody could accuse the force of being “systematically racist” to begin with.

Proper safeguards must be put in place to protect minorities from unwarranted stop-and-frisks, and those who are found guilty of racial profiling must be held accountable. However, police officers should not have to consider the race of a person when assessing whether they are “eligible” for stop-and-frisk–“eligibility” should be based only on information available about the crime in question. Race is simply one of the many pieces of information an officer has when considering whether to stop-and-frisk an individual.

Mr. De Blasio ran for mayor on a ticket of progressive values. Behind these progressive values is the true key to reducing the number of minorities targeted by stop and frisk; by reducing the number of minorities suspected of violent crimes.

Throughout our criminal justice process–from arrest to conviction to incarceration–minorities are disproportionately represented. Is this due to racial undertones? Probably to a certain extent, based on how we categories and punish different offenses. Violent crimes are disproportionately committed by minorities, while “white-collar”crimes often go unpunished and are never the subject of “stop-and-frisk”. But stop-and-frisk is about safety and immediate physical harm, not about longer term financial type crimes. While I certainly believe white-collar criminals should be held accountable, this has nothing to do with the issues of violent crime and stop-and-frisk.

The socioeconomic roots of violent crime are the true culprit behind the apparent “racial profiling” in stop-and-frisk, and therein lie the solutions. When Mayor De Blasio talks about progressive taxation, social programs, equality of opportunity, social mobility, he is talking about creating new opportunities for everyone on the bottom wrung of the socioeconomic ladder (which recent evidence suggests is not as minority-dominated as some might believe). These opportunities, in time, present an alternative to violent crime. Given the option, the overwhelming majority of people of all races would choose a life of rewarding work, comfort, and security over a life of crime (if it was a true possibility and not some unattainable goal).

So mayor De Blasio, while I am eager to see your liberal vision for NYC unfold, and hope it offers a model for the rest of the country, I urge you not to take your racial equality crusade to far. There are deep rooted socioeconomic issues behind the racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk numbers; to gut the program would be a mistake. Instead, allow your vision for NYC to change the statistics “organically”, without putting innocent people and police officers in danger. In the meantime, reforms can make stop-and-frisk a more transparent and accountable process (however this is true of all public programs, they are hardly issue unique to stop-and-frisk).

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Transparency Report: Prison Paradox Redux

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A few months back, I blogged about what I termed the “Prison Paradox“:

“The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before”

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.”

“‘Raymond V. Liedka, of Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have found that the crime-fighting effects of prison disappear once the incarceration rate gets too high. “If the buildup goes beyond a tipping point, then additional incarceration is not going to gain our society any reduction in crime, and may lead to increased crime,’ Dr. Liedka said.”

“‘Prison has become the new poverty trap,’ said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. ‘It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.’

Long-term lockup rates, and poor job prospects for ex-cons, great a “prison culture” in poor neighborhoods. Older ex-con’s believe a return to jail is inevitable, young children believe jail is inevitable (because of what they have witnessed growing up); this pessimism leads to poor decision making and ultimately creates a self-fulfilling cycle of poor prospects, poor decision making, and subsequent prison terms (and perpetuates the inter-generational aspect of the poverty trap).

As the federal and state governments look for areas to make spending cuts, it would be beneficial for policymakers to revisit reducing prison sentences for certain crimes. It seems that shorter prison sentences would save money today via a lower prison bill, and save us money in the future in the form of lower future entitlement spending. Less spending on long prison terms and greater spending on social programs (which enhance ones future prospects and thus makes crime a less attractive alternative) should combine to break the “prison poverty trap”.

Evidence of a drop in U.S. prison population suggests that law-makers are beginning to take a more pragmatic approach towards punishing criminal activity:

“The prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released on Thursday, in what criminal justice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation’s recent history, signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.”

“The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to criminal punishment.”

“In recent years, tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, changes in sentencing laws and shifts in public opinion have combined to reverse the trend. Experts on prison policy said that the continuing decline appears to be more than a random fluctuation.”

“Most observers agree that the recession has played a role in shrinking prison populations.”

“Though the trend may have begun out of a need for belt-tightening, it had grown into a national effort to rethink who should go to prison and for how long”

Changes in state and federal sentencing laws for lower-level offenses like those involving drugs have played a central role in the shift, he and others said, with many states setting up diversion programs for offenders as an alternative to prison. And some states have softened their policies on parole, no longer automatically sending people back to prison for parole violations.”

“Changing public attitudes are also a major driver behind the declining prison numbers. Dropping crime rates over the last 20 years have reduced public fears and diminished the interest of politicians in running tough-on-crime campaigns. And public polls consistently show that Americans are now more interested in spending money on education and health care than on building more prisons.”

“A year or even two years is a blip and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but three years starts to look like a trend,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. But he said that the rate of inmates incarcerated in the United States continued to be “dramatically higher” than in other countries and that the changes so far were “relatively modest compared to the scale of the problem.”

It should be emphasized that this is only the tip of the iceberg. But progress must start somewhere, and both empirical evidence and public opinion appear to have shifted the way that law-makers address criminal punishment.

Less money spent on prisons opens up fiscal space for crime prevention and deterrence programs.

Crime prevention programs hit on the root causes of criminal behavior– a combination of socio-economic realities and a criminal / prison culture that often makes a life of crime a self-fulfilling and then self-perpetuating reality. By investing more in schools, healthcare (including mental healthcare, which is unquestionably linked to anti-social and criminal behavior), and other social programs that promote meritocracy and social mobility, disenfranchised youths will have more reason to be optimistic and make long-term investments in themselves that reflect that optimism. By having less parents in jail and more at home, parental income and guidance can act as a substitute for gang affiliation and money from criminal activities.

Part of non-jail punishment for minor criminal activities should be education on the detrimental effects of crime on youth and society, so that those who are given a fresh chance pass on these lessons to a younger generation which looks up to them.

Crime deterrence involves education on the detrimental effects of crime on oneself and society (overlapping with crime prevention), and increased spending on police officers. Having more officers on the street makes crime a less appealing alternative (especially in an environment where alternatives actually exist), while also providing security for hard working innocent people (who ultimately pay not only for both operating prisons and police officers via taxation).

People need to be held responsible for their actions, but the punishment must fit the crime. Making an example of individuals in an attempt to deter future crime does not work. What it does is impose an unfair burden on both the tax-payer and creates a vicious cycle of socio-economic degeneration that disproportionately affects poor people and minorities.

Violent criminals and multiple offenders must be kept off the streets. But imposing long jail sentences on first-time-non-violent offenders and parole violators can be counter-productive, turning misguided individuals into career criminals.

In assessing the impacts of a more restrained and pragmatic approach to prison sentencing, we must wait for significant reductions in incarceration rates as well as a “time lag”, as human development is a dynamic process. For now, we can be optimistic that after decades of misguided policy, we seem to have hit a turning point.

“This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration,” said Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice.