Why Democrats deserve a chunk of the blame for Baltimore's anguish

The party once desperately wanted to appear tough on drug crime. Baltimore is still paying the price.

The influence of Bill Clinton's war on crime.
(Image credit: (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy Getty Images, Corbis))

“There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” Hillary Clinton said Wednesday. “There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison during their lifetimes. And an estimated 1.5 million black men are "missing" from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death.”

Profoundly, brutally, incomprehensiby wrong. So obviously wrong. And yet, until recently, mainstream Democrats — especially Democratic governors who came of age politically during the turbulence of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, those Democrats who (directly or indirectly) encouraged the stigmatizing of welfare recipients when speaking to white, working class voters — wrote and sold the policies that recruited the parade of horribles that Secretary Clinton brought up. They didn't do so maliciously; President Clinton's policy advisers will point to a dozen reasons outside of politics when confronted with evidence that their war on crime did not in and of itself reduce crime, and in fact, may have exacerbated tensions between poor people, black people, and the police.

A few small examples:

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1. Under Democrats, it became much harder for men and women convicted of felony drug crimes to return to their families after prison. Why? Because they were barred from public housing, which happened to be where their families lived. The effect on drug use in the projects was marginal; the effect on intact families was devastating. In 1996, it became illegal in most states for people with felony drug offenses to receive welfare benefits.

What type of drug offense merits a felony charge? Lots of them, but here’s a simple one: possess heroin in any amount, and you’ve got a felony charge. Any amount of heroin.

2. Democrats promoted data-driven policing as a way to ensure the efficiency of police tactics, applying a technocratic gloss to a profession that doesn’t lend itself naturally to metrics. But that simply increased the pressure to juke the stats, which lowered the threshold for petty arrests, empowering the police to be more aggressive, and pulling apart the unofficial lines that more or less kept police brutality from exploding in cities like Baltimore. (David Simon makes a good case that Martin O’Malley’s political aspirations were unkind to his city, and his CitiStat program was easily manipulated to make him look good.)

3. Democrats were reluctant to take on the NRA at crucial points, institutionally failing to back up a focus on gun violence (which seems to work to reduce crime rates) with the political will necessary to pass legislation making it easier to track guns and reduce the available stocks of ammunition.

4. Many Democrats supported the prison building boom, and had no problem with a policy that jailed people for non-violent drug offenses, took away their property, and then prevented them from using their family’s concerns as a mitigating factor for their sentences. An entire cohort of young black men went to jail for not being violent, and then were released, having been subject to the violence of a prison system, for no real good reason at all, given how inoffensive their crimes were.

In retrospect, we can find the justifications that Clinton, Vice President Biden, and others gave in 1994, when the major crime bill was signed into law, and some make sense.

None of these policy changes can account for the structural factors that have kept American inner cities looking like movie war zones. The difference in the way that rich and poor experience life is astonishing, from school quality to health care access to daily stress levels to the quality of the environment to job opportunities.

But policing, as an instrument of the government’s apparatus of social control, can itself be controlled, through policy. And it’s here that Democrats, generally, profoundly miscalculated the risks and benefits of being seen as tough on drug crime.

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