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A troubling rise in violent crime, including a surge in homicides in major cities across the country, has the potential to upend the emerging bipartisan consensus in favor of policing and criminal justice reform.
This is one reason President Joe Biden is turning his attention to the issue of crime on Wednesday, though many of his proposals are expected to focus on guns. The bipartisan support for sentencing and policing reforms is fragile and potentially dependent on the past 20 years of relatively low crime.
“After George Floyd, there was a bipartisan moment where everyone said, ‘We need to fix this,’” said Randy Petersen, a senior researcher at Right on Crime, a criminal justice initiative by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “The defunding [the police] movement kind of derailed the bipartisanship of that.”
“How high does the crime rate need to go before Democrats stop their campaign to release violent criminals from prison?” Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, tweeted on Tuesday. He later more directly challenged some of the sentencing reform ideas that have attracted support from lawmakers in both parties in recent years.
“Crack penalties are harsher than powder cocaine penalties,” Cotton tweeted. “Let's fix this by increasing the penalty for selling powder cocaine. Not by letting drug traffickers out of prison.”
Former President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, a major piece of bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation, into law in late 2018. But some of his populist supporters derided it as a “jailbreak” bill amid a decline in the influence of the GOP’s libertarian wing, and the appetite for follow-up legislation could be diminished further if crime worsens.
Democrats have faced their own divisions on the issue as party operatives blamed "defund the police" for their worse-than-expected electoral performance last year, even though Biden said he opposed the movement. Police reform legislation advocated by Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, stalled after Senate Democrats argued it did not go far enough.
"If there is anybody who can get this done, it's Tim Scott,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “He knows these issues well and is really respected by his colleagues."
The perception that Democrats were lenient on crime and public safety contributed to their electoral setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as efforts by party centrists to take the lead on the issue. These political realities in a period of violence in cities led to the passage of the 1994 crime bill, boosted by Biden and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Some provisions of that law, such as the social welfare spending and the assault weapons ban, remain popular among liberals today. But the legislation also funded more police officers rather than reallocating resources to non-law enforcement forms of conflict resolution. It has also been widely criticized as contributing to the mass incarceration of black people.
In the last two presidential elections, Trump actively campaigned against Biden's and Hillary Clinton’s role in passing the 1994 crime bill. Nearly 1 in 5 black men voted for Trump in November, according to exit polls.
Now, Democrats once again find themselves trying to navigate the issue of law and order with a liberal activist base that is less forgiving of tough-on-crime measures than during the Clinton administration. It was a divisive issue in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary on Tuesday. In a corresponding trend, Republican attitudes on crime are once again hardening.
“Looking for a major cause of the spike in crime in our nation’s cities?” reads a statement from the Republican National Committee. “Look no further than the devastating impacts Democrats’ defund the police efforts have had on officer morale.”
“A lot of the rise in crime rates are related to the rise in anti-police sentiment,” Petersen, a former law enforcement officer, said. “The defunding the police movement contributed to the rise in anti-police sentiment,” which, in turn, did more to worsen crimes rates “than any actual defunding did.”
A YouGov poll taken last month found that crime was considered a very big problem by 49% of voters, ahead of the economy, political correctness, race relations, or the pandemic.
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Original Author: W. James Antle III
Original Location: Crime wave could stall bipartisan justice reforms