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Obama’s criminal justice reform report: More police, higher minimum wage

(AP Photo/Terry Tang)

(AP Photo/Terry Tang)

The Obama administration, citing a cost-benefit analysis, thinks it can drive a 16 percent reduction in crime by spending $10 billion to increase police forces nationwide.

A new report from the Council of Economic Advisers offers criminal justice reforms that center on the economic gains to be had from reducing the prison population, increasing the number of police, and improving policing tactics, among other initiatives.

More money for policing, less money for imprisoning, is the main thrust.

“The Administration is committed to a holistic approach to criminal justice reform that creates a fairer and smarter system in the community, the cell block and the courtroom,” the report said.

The rise of mass incarceration has put a squeeze on state budgets and made the country poorer.

“A large body of economic research shows that incarceration has only a small impact on crime reduction, and that this impact diminishes as the incarcerated population grows. Instead, the surge in incarceration has been driven by changes in criminal justice policies,” the report said.

Politicians who were “tough on crime” ignored the effects of their proposed policies in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, the negative consequences have hampered police and prisons from benefiting the public.

By 2013, for example, 11 states “spent more on corrections than on higher education.”

Conservatives won’t like everything in the administration’s report. The report argued that “raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease and a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion.” The minimum wage has an annoying tendency of disproportionately hurting racial minorities and imagining that economic reality is a political preference. Economic growth could deter crime, but governments don’t have a strong record of recognizing market demand.

Expanding investments for early childhood education and job training for prison inmates could be opposed by conservatives as well.

One bright spot, however, could be expanded policing, though training could be controversial. The report admits that “more research is needed to understand how to best improve the effectiveness of police and build constructive relationships between communities and law enforcement.”

“Increasing the number of police on the street, for example, would increase capture rates and deter crime and by doing so it would also reduce the prison population,” Economist Alex Tabarrok wrote. More police is a better crime-prevention strategy than more prisons.

However, police reform would be needed for those increases to be effective.

“Unfortunately, selling the public on more policing is likely to be difficult. Some of the communities most in need of more police are also communities with some of the worst policing problems. We aren’t likely to get more policing until people are convinced that we have better policing,” Tabarrok said.

Chicago, for instance, has a police force “beset by racism” and corruption problems. Criminal justice reform would benefit the city immensely by making its citizens safer, its police force more responsive to residents, and its economy more productive with more workers. Those deep issues, along with the national problem of police militarization, could undermine any gains promised through more police officers.

Though criminal justice reform has been a popular topic for conservative think tanks, such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Illinois Policy Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, the Republican presidential candidates have shown little interest in revising the Republican approach to criminal justice. Rand Paul often talked about the failure of the war on drugs and mass incarceration, but his rivals “have spent almost no time substantively engaging issues of criminal justice reform,” Ed Krayewski wrote.

For substantive change in criminal justice, Obama might need to push ahead in his dwindling time as president.


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