Nearing the end of his second term, President Barack Obama is lending his voice to criminal justice reform. In July he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, and this week he ordered federal agencies to delay asking most potential employees about criminal backgrounds.
Players from the left, like the American Civil Liberties Union, have joined forces with conservatives, like the billionaire Koch brothers, and pumped millions of dollars into the push to combat mass incarceration.
The reform talk is bipartisan, with support from congressional Republicans and Democrats. Jumping into the reform chorus have been Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, and even Donald Trump. Former President Bill Clinton performed a public mea culpa, admitting his 1994 crime bill led to mass incarceration.
The issue has gone mainstream.
Many have lauded the role of law enforcement, including that of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, in embracing criminal justice reform. However, critics point out that policing philosophies like New York City's broken-windows approach seem antithetical to the efforts. The game plan for reform, like monitoring and diversion programs run by contractors, seems more like a privatization of criminal justice to alleviate municipal and state budgets that can't afford overcrowded prisons.
In the '90s, with the crack era winding down, New York City transitioned to broken-windows policing. The focus changed from violent drug offenders to quality-of-life nuisances in a city with less and less violent crime. The era of mass criminalization was born. While a bust for hopping the turnstile or arrests of homeless people for begging didn't add to prison overcrowding, their quality-of-life infractions created a revolving door of enforcement that saw cops churn out arrests and summonses.
Go to low-level courts across the country and you'll see mostly blacks and Latinos in and out for a range of nonviolent offenses. Advocates of broken windows say the policy ushers in safety. However, researchers have argued about whether cracking down on low-level offenses prevents serious crime, as the theory purports. In fact, New York police union boss Patrick Lynch and some retired cops have railed against ticket quotas imposed on officers that many say fuels unnecessary enforcement. Lynch's predecessor at the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, James Savage, called quality-of-life policing a "map for a police state."
The net result was that while avoiding the rising incarceration rates of other cities, New York became akin to an open-air prison, with constant contact on the streets between cops and nonviolent New Yorkers. A report last year from John Jay College said that misdemeanor arrests in the city climbed from about 60,000 to a quarter-million in two decades. The largest increase in arrest rates for low-level offenses was among blacks and Latinos.
But perhaps this open-air prison is what reform is all about, removing a harsh, destructive and unpopular model and screwing in a seemingly more palatable one. When New York's Rockefeller drug laws were reformed in 2009, many black men in New York came home from prison only to be stopped and frisked in their neighborhoods.
Is that progress for social justice activists -- trading off mass incarceration for mass criminalization? They're apparently relying on an influx of conservative cash and the leadership of law enforcement leaders like Bratton and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who is backing the effort with asset forfeiture money.
I wouldn't be so trusting.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.