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Journalists should worry about the people policy hurts, not the politicians it helps

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Journalism is supposed to focus on holding people in power accountable — yet all too often it's focused more on how people in power can get reelected instead of whether, given the people their policies have hurt, they deserve to be reelected.

Radley Balko at the Washington Post wrote a great column eviscerating the idea that embracing criminal justice reform, as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has done, is bad politics. But he also makes the point that pundits as a whole could probably stand to worry a lot less about the politics behind policies and instead focus on how these policies actually affect people.

Balko points to the story of Antonio Morgan, a small-business owner in St. Louis County who faces constant harassment from police. Morgan, who's a tall black man with long dreadlocks, was essentially trapped in a vicious cycle, where unpaid traffic tickets he couldn't afford led to the suspension of his driver's license, which only led to more citations as he continued driving for his job. This harassment carried on after Morgan opened his business, a car repair and body shop:

Cops would show up at his garage and cite his employees for operating without a business license. Morgan has a license; his employees didn’t need one. But to get the citations dismissed, Morgan and his employees would have to go to court, which was held once a month, at night. If they missed their court date, they too would be hit with an arrest warrant. Wealthy people can hire an attorney to go in their stead, and to negotiate their way out of a citation. But neither Morgan nor his employees were wealthy. Sometimes, Morgan was given other citations that required the man from whom he rented the space for his garage to come to court to vouch for him. That put strain on the relationship between Morgan and his landlord.

This is the actual effect of tough-on-crime policies that encourage police officers to carry out arrests even for petty crimes — sometimes to net more revenue from fines and court fees, and other times to discourage crime by showing even small criminal acts won't be tolerated. With police officers heavily concentrated in low-income, black neighborhoods that tend to have higher crime rates, the incentive to make as many arrests and citations as possible ends up catching a lot of innocent and well-meaning people — like Morgan — in a dragnet that's just far too wide. And this causes black residents — like Morgan — to justifiably feel like they're being unfairly targeted.

"Our criminal justice system and different aspects of our criminal justice system are racist in application," Neill Franklin, a retired police major and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which opposes the war on drugs, told me. "Even if there was no intent in the design for racism, we've gotten to a place where it's the result of our policies."

Given that this type of harassment in black communities is what tough-on-crime policies look like, Balko has a suggestion for pundits: "Maybe they'll stop asking, 'What does this candidate's criminal justice policy mean for the election?' and start asking, 'What does this candidate’s criminal justice policy mean for the people who will be affected by it?'"

The politics of criminal justice reform are still solid

President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder led the charge on criminal justice reform. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via Getty Images)

With all that said, if the politics are something pundits really want to focus on, Balko lists several polls that show a good majority of Americans support reforms like adopting body cameras, abolishing mandatory minimum sentences, and focusing on drug treatment instead of incarceration.

But I think Balko actually misses the best case for why criminal justice reform isn't bad politics: President Barack Obama. As Balko points out, President Richard Nixon's tough-on-crime campaign was built to appeal to white Americans' fears of black people. If anyone proves that this era of politics is by and large dead, it's Obama; he's a black man who backed criminal justice reform on the campaign trail and has focused much of his law and order platform on cutting the prison population, even passing a law that reduced penalties on crack cocaine, and he was elected twice to the highest office in the land.

The broader point, however, is that journalists shouldn't focus so much on the political aspect of policy coverage as on the actual effect of policies. Let the politicians worry about politics; they pay hundreds of people to do that. It's a lot more informative to readers to focus on stories like Morgan's, which show how federal and state governments went so wrong in their overreaction to the higher crime rates of the 1970s and 1980s.

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