There was some talk, in comments, yesterday about my exact stance on crime and punishment. As I said, I'd rather not repeatedly rehash my own thinking on criminal justice reform. It's easily accessible through the archives. Rightly or wrongly, I write with a bias toward those who've been reading this blog for some time. Moreover, I write as though we're involved in an ongoing conversation, as opposed to strangers debating on the corner. This is selfish--I use my assembled commenters to help get clear on what I actually think, and quite often, as a kind of chorus for my long form work. That approach has some shortcomings, but I think it favors continued long-term engagement and original thinking (as much as that's possible.) Moreover, I hope it keeps me off that "We know what XX pundit is thinking" list.
That said, I think a few things are worth revisiting. First, I should have stated that I disagreed with Josh Marshall rapping Huckabee for clemency. I don't know Josh's views on the subject, but rapping a governor for granting clemency strikes me as the sort of thing we'd decry if Huckabee were a Democrat. Moreover, from my vantage point, Huckabee was right. In the coming days we're going to hear a lot about all the Arkansas clemency cases that went bad. But we won't hear much about all the ones that went right. We won't hear about the people Huckabee let out of jail, who didn't belong there and went on to lead responsible lives.
It's worth reviewing what actually happened in the Maurice Clemmons case. Huckabee, apparently, reduced the sentence of a guy who was given 100 years in prison, for crimes he committed between the age of 16 and 18--none of which were murder or rape. I just find it impossible to criticize him for that decision. What I was trying to get at yesterday--albeit rather meekly--was that people who have an issue with Huckabee would do better to look at the laundry list of fuck-ups and loopholes which allowed Clemmons to remain free. Among them, Arkansas's unwillingness to reclaim Clemmons:
Clemmons wound up being arrested seven weeks later, on July 1, when he showed up in court, in apparent hopes of having the bench warrant thrown out.
The next day, prosecutors charged him with second-degree rape of a child, accusing him of molesting his 12-year-old relative in May.
Prosecutors also filed a separate charge on July 2 -- this one accusing Clemmons of being a fugitive from Arkansas. They cited the chain of events involving the alleged assault on the deputies as evidence that Clemmons had violated his parole in Arkansas. If sent back, he faced the prospect of being returned to prison for years.
But July 22, the Arkansas Department of Community Correction notified Pierce County, by letter, that Arkansas had no interest in taking Clemmons back.
"Arkansas is releasing its hold on the offender and will not extradite at this time," the letter said. "The subject has pending charges in the state of Washington and appropriate action will be taken once the charges have been adjudicated."
Arkansas rescinded its warrant. Had Arkansas not done so, Clemmons would have been held without bail on the alleged parole violation.
Perhaps this is merely a bureaucratic fuck-up, but it's the sort of thing--despite it's consequences--that won't attract nearly the sort of attention which Huckabee's clemency grant will. You can put a big face on clemency. But for rescinding a warrant, all you have is papers and low-level bureaucrats.
I've highlighted this issue for two reasons. First, I think it's important for liberals concerned about criminal justice to speak up on principle. That it's Mike Huckabee--whose views on gay rights, abortion and the Confederate flag, I find deplorable--pursuing that principle shouldn't change things. We keep saying we want conservatives to be "reasonable" about these issues. It strikes me as unhelpful to knife one for short-term partisan gain.
Second, as a black male whose lived his entire life in the "inner city," I have a personal, and intimate, understanding of violent crime. Forgive me if that sounds presumptuous, but I'm trying to point out that these issues are about more than morals and theory, for me. (Not that morals aren't important.) There is a practical, tangible impact on our communities for bad criminal justice policy and execution. One tangible impact--which we rightly often focus on--is the shocking number of black men in jail. But another tangible impact is the inhibition of the rightful prosecution of actual criminals who really should be in jail.
The sense that the cops are not responsible to the communities that they patrol, that they aren't so much a force for justice, as they are another faction out on the street--another gang pursuing it's own interest--is detrimental to the ultimate aim of prosecuting violent criminals. Likewise, the sense that the justice system is not so much interested in justice, but in arrest and conviction numbers, is corrosive to the basic public trust. That corrosion dissuades people from calling the cops when real crimes are committed. It dissuades people from testifying in trials. It encourages citizens to protect themselves, and pursue their own means of justice.
Back when "Stop Snitchin" was the rage, most journalists blindly accepted the standard police narrative, that this new, young hip-hop generation was morally depraved. This is unsurprising. Most journalists come from a class of people that have not come to view the cops as a gang, who have not directly experienced a justice system which discourages trust. In other words, journalists didn't stop to ask "Why?"
The point I'm pushing here is that brutal cops and ill-considered policy doesn't simply mean a shocking incarceration rate and DNA exonerations, it also means a loss of legitimacy for societal authority. A loss of legitimacy means less community cooperation, and less community cooperation means less success in the fight against violent crime.
That latter goal remains close to me. As much as I literally weeped for Willingham, as much as I think about Troy Davis, and three strikes, I'm just as concerned for young black boys who are losing some aspect of their childhood. We talk so much about how poorly our kids do in school. But what we rarely acknowledge that for a lot of young black boys, the walk to school is an obstacle course littered with potential muggings, thrashings, and beat-downs. Moreover, all those boys know that society--and hence, the cops--isn't much interested in helping them, that it doesn't do a good job at distinguishing victims from perpetrators.
Look, I'm still that kid who, at 12, came to regard getting banked as kind of horror which every single one of my friends experienced, and which could only be resisted by some banking of my own. When I got stomped out on Liberty Heights, It never occurred to me that I'd been the victim of crime, that something illegal had transpired. What occurred to me was that in order to cope with these Park Heights niggers, I needed to run faster and roll harder. What occurred to me was where there was no written law, there was jungle law, and I'd best get acquainted with its finer precepts. And so I did like most my peers--I got a crew, perfected my bop, my ice-grill, and reached for The Mask. In doing so, I joined the nameless, unprotected horde. "There are rules to this shit," as Biggie once said. "I wrote me a manual."