When people campaign for elected office, they often claim to be “tough on crime.” People use the phrase to get votes. But it’s rarely substantive, and the people who say it almost never have personal experience with the criminal justice system.
Having personally prosecuted consumer fraudsters and sexual predators, both in President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice and a district attorney’s office, I am the only candidate who has looked someone in the eyes before telling a judge why that person should be sent to prison. I am the only candidate, to my knowledge, who has actually enforced criminal laws.
So, speaking as a person who has experience in the world of criminal justice, I pose this question:
Knowing that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, incarcerating about 25% of the world’s prison population, why is crime still an issue in the United States? If the answer is as simple as getting “tough on crime” and locking more people up for longer periods of time, we already lead the world in that regard. We’ve increased our federal prison population by 790% since 1980. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our incarceration rate is more than five times higher than most others.
So if arresting and imprisoning people was sufficient to make our communities safe, shouldn’t we be the safest country in the world by now?
Here’s the difficult truth that those who push a “tough on crime” stance refuse to acknowledge: We cannot arrest our way out of crime. If we want our communities to be safe, we have to actually confront the root causes of crime. We need to understand what happened in a person’s life – from the moment they were born to the moment they committed a crime – that led them to commit the crime in the first place. We must figure out what incentives, circumstances, or trauma made it more likely that they would commit crime and what we can do to make it less likely that people will choose to commit crimes.
Bringing down crime rates requires that people no longer feel incentivized to commit crimes. Investing in the myriad of ways we can disincentivize crime, or make it less likely that people will turn to crime, is how we actually make our communities safer for the long haul.
There are programs that have been shown to reduce crime in the short and medium term. For example, studies show that students who attend preschool are far less likely to commit a crime during the remainder of their childhood. Universal pre-K would make our communities substantially safer and would have a near-immediate effect. In addition, funding for school psychologists and family therapy for families of at-risk preadolescents has been proven through studies to reduce risk factors for delinquency, such as aggressiveness and hyperactivity. Community-based mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, have been proven effective as well.
There are also programs that reduce recidivism rates, so that a person who leaves prison is less likely to commit a crime again. Prison-based vocational education programs have substantially reduced post-release repeat offending. Drug treatment in jails has been shown to reduce repeat arrests.
Finally, for the long term, we ultimately have to address poverty and income inequality. Studies show that crime rates across the world and state-by-state most closely correlate with poverty rates and levels of income inequality. The overall average child poverty rate across developed countries is 11.7%. The United States child poverty rate is 20.9%. For a point of comparison, the country boasting the lowest child poverty rate is Denmark, at an infinitesimal 2.9%. Our overall poverty rate is at 17.8%, while the average across developed countries sits at 10.7%.
We need people to have quality health care coverage and access to high-quality education. We need a robust local economy in which a full-time job allows people to pay their mortgages and save for retirement. We need to make more people’s lives economically stable, such that we undercut incentives for people to commit crimes. We need to reduce homelessness by making housing affordable for all, and by funding programs that reduce the risk of drug addiction.
As long as a large percentage of people in our country are financially struggling, we will have intolerable crime rates. When people are without means, they become desperate. When people are desperate, they are more likely to commit crimes. Arresting people can reduce crime in the short-term, but it’s not the complete answer. Actually reducing crime and protecting our communities in the long run requires far more work.
I’ve put people away who needed to be put away. In my work for President Obama’s Department of Justice, I helped send people to prison for defrauding elderly victims. But what if we could make change in our society, such that the people I sent to prison would have never thought to commit themselves to a life of crime in the first place?
It’s easy to wave the “tough on crime” banner as a candidate and pretend that crime will disappear if we just keep building more prisons and punishing more harshly. But I refuse to run a surfacey, run-of-the-mill campaign devoid of depth, hard truth, and nuance. Sometimes the right solutions are complicated and nuanced. They’re not designed for quick soundbites. But I believe that any person running for office and asking to be elected in our community should be honest about the challenges we face and what’s necessary to fully solve them, regardless of whether the real answers are politically convenient or not.
If we’re serious about addressing crime and public safety – and we want to do it to make our world a better place for our children – then we have to be holistic, determined, and intentional in our approach. Yes, we have to enforce our laws and arrest people who commit crimes. But we also have to do more than that. We have to study which programs reduce crime rates and fully fund and implement them. We have to help lift people out of poverty. We have to confront housing and health care costs.
This approach is how we can be smart on crime. It’s the complete and honest answer, rather than the politically convenient answer.
As your state senator, I intend to seek comprehensive solutions that are data-proven to make our communities safer, both for the now and for future generations.
Kipp Mueller is a Canyon Country resident and candidate for the state’s 21st Senate District, which encompasses the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Victor valleys. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays and rotates among local Democrats.