Here’s a question for you: What was the best policy idea for making America safer that was advanced on the first night of the Republican National Convention? The designated theme of the evening, after all, was "Make America Safe Again." So what were the ideas for making America safer?
The answer, of course, is that there weren’t any policy ideas advanced at all beyond a norm-busting call to imprison Hillary Clinton if she loses the election and the idea that Donald Trump will make terrorism vanish by whispering the magic word "radical Islamic terrorism." It’s fair and important to note that contra what was said from the podium Monday night, America is broadly becoming safer. But it’s also fair for citizens to worry that the United States is not as safe as it could or should be or to want to see public officials alarmed by the possible uptick in crime that happened last year.
But for politicians to make America safer, they would have to actually do something to make America safer. Trump has no idea how to do that, which is why his first two speakers were C-list celebrities complaining that it’s harder to express open racism these days rather than anyone with anything constructive to say to improve public safety.
America could be safer than it is
The rates of murder and violent crime in the United States began to fall in 1991 and then fell steadily through to 2014, which is the last year for which we have genuinely reliable data.
There is some indication that crime may have risen in 2015, which would be moderately alarming even if it still left crime below the level it was when Barack Obama took office.
What’s more, despite the generally positive trends, the United States remains an outlier among rich countries in terms of its level of lethal violence:
Given the overall trend, Americans should not be alarmist about violent crime. But we shouldn’t be complacent about it either. Aspiring to the level of physical security enjoyed by residents of Belgium, Greece, or Canada seems like a perfectly reasonable hope.
Nobody at the Republican convention had any ideas to offer on how to make this happen. But it’s not as if there are no ideas out there, so here are a few suggestions:
- Mark Kleiman’s proposal to replace some incarceration with closely monitored "graduated reentry" into the civilian population to reduce recidivism.
- In the past, raising the federal alcohol tax rate has reduced crime. We should raise it again and index the taxes for inflation.
- One potentially useful thing to do with that tax revenue would be to hire more police officers, which has been shown to reduce crime rates.
- Research also shows that where the police officers go matters, and that focusing cops on geographically compact "hot spots" of crime reduces crime rates.
- Reductions in childhood lead exposure seems to have been the primary driver of the 1990s crime drop, and there is much more that could be done to reduce exposure — particularly from contaminated soil — even further. One candidate for president has a plan to do this, and let’s just say it’s not Trump.
Note that there is a flywheel effect between these ideas. To the extent that crime falls, less money needs to be spent on imprisoning and supervising convicted criminals, which means that more money is available for preventative policing and public health measures.
On top of all that, it’s also clearly true that if we massively reduced the number of concealable handguns circulating in America we would have less murder (and possibly more non-fatal stabbing), though the trade-off here between public safety and individual liberty is one where the country seems to have sided decisively with the "more handguns" option.
"Tough-on-crime" politics is toxic for crime control
Monday morning, Eli Stokols of Politico reported that Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, "views Sunday’s fatal shooting of Baton Rouge police officers as part of a ‘pattern of lawlessness’ in American cities that is likely to bolster the real estate mogul's law and order campaign."
Manafort said he sees crime and urban disorder as boosting Trump, just as they boosted Richard Nixon. Stokols reported that Manafort says "Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 RNC is one Trump himself liked and may look to for inspiration."
The thing about Nixon is that it’s usually good to have incentive-compatible relationships where the same outcomes advance the interests of both sides of the bargain. Crime politics isn’t like that. The increase in crime over the course of the 1960s fed a backlash against liberalism, and Richard Nixon successfully campaigned on "law and order" in his 1968 campaign for the presidency. Bringing a more authoritarian mien to bear on the urban crisis made Americans feel better about the situation, politically.
But throughout the whole long Nixon-Reagan tough on crime era of conservative ascendancy, the crime rate remained very high. The story is that America’s crime rate has fallen steadily since 1991, not 1981 or 1971.
Because if your politics benefits from high levels of crime, it’s unlikely that you are genuinely going to mount a smart whole-of-government effort to reduce crime. Trump’s interest in criminal justice policy began when he called for the execution of five innocent young black men and continued through to a convention evening in which he didn’t present any ideas for crime control.
If he becomes president, that’s what you are going to get: someone who’s very interested in affective toughness, totally unconcerned with policy issues, and blithely confident that the worse things get the better off he’ll be.