Wednesday, December 7

Why America’s obsession with a suspect’s rap sheet misses the point | US crime

After six people were shot and killed outside a bar in Sacramento, California, earlier this month, stories about the victims and their grieving families initially filled local news.

Soon followed reports about two brothers who were arrested in connection with the early morning shootout, with journalists and commentators delving into the brothers’ histories. Both men had several prior convictions, and the coverage of their rap sheets was swiftly seized upon by midterm election hopefuls and conservative commentators to argue for harsher punishments and increased policing.

The coverage was just the latest chapter in a long playbook, one where the rap sheets of shoplifting, assault or shooting suspects are held up as evidence of continued failure, both from individuals and liberal officials who push for criminal justice reform. But perhaps more importantly, says John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, rap sheets tell us a lot about shortcomings in the criminal legal system, from policing all the way through incarceration and re-entry.

The Guardian spoke with Pfaff about the role of rap sheets in American news coverage, in the first of three interviews on the rise-in-crime narrative that is so prominent in American society today. Not all the people and reporters who bring up criminal histories do so cynically, he says. But many, especially police unions and law and order politicians, use them as an excuse to give up and stop working with entire communities.

“When someone keeps coming in and out, in and out, isn’t that a sign perhaps that we’re failing?” he asks.

The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How have you seen American news media deal with rap sheets over the years?

The story of someone with a long rap sheet who has failed is much more available to us than that of the person with the long sheet who was successful.

There’s a profound asymmetry in how we hear about rap sheets. Only when someone does something wrong do we call up that history. And after someone is identified as a suspect it’s easy to look up that person’s history and see if there’s a plausible connection between the history and the subsequent crime. We never see the cases of the people who have long sheets and stay on the right path.

And often, there are challenges to telling the story of someone who is released and instead of being locked up again gets the treatment they need and their life back on track. Their defense attorney cannot share that information in the same way police and district attorneys can, unless the person is willing to do that, and who wants to be the poster child for justice reform success? If you’ve gotten your life back on track you want that arrest to just go away.

The asymmetry makes it easy for people to say that if we started locking up everyone who has these specific 10 priors, we would’ve prevented perhaps Este crime. But what are the costs from that?

What do you think we as a society are trying to accomplish when we hold up a rap sheet after something horrible happens?

Even if we put aside the cynical abuse of rap sheets, it’s kind of hard to unpack. On one level, there are people who are genuinely concerned with public safety who think that past actions predict future behavior and that after we’ve given someone a second, third and fourth chance we have to take steps to keep people safe. It’s not necessarily driven by any sort of cynicism or meanness. I think there are people who believe that sincerely. So you can view sharing rap sheets as a call for public safety.

John Pfaff. Photograph: Fordham School of Law

At the same time, there is a suggestion that we should be giving up on a person. Sometimes we look at someone’s history and instead of saying, “What can we do to help this person?” we decide to solve the problem by making the person go away for some period of time.

When it comes to violence, I think that someone’s history of arrests, charges and convictions can give us a better sense of what works. But often things are quite expensive. The fiscal cost of prison is pretty low compared to things like cognitive behavioral therapy and drug treatment, which require much more intensive one-on-one interactions with people.

What are some tools, inside and outside prisons, that can stop someone from escalating violence or reoffending?

Inside prisons, wardens often work really hard on programming. That’s what keeps their officers the safest, because bored young men with nothing to do, full of anger and resentment, are prone to violence. But just because prisons have programming that doesn’t mean it’s great programming. And it certainly doesn’t mean it’s the best programming for overcoming the disadvantages that those who ended up in prison have faced. So saying, “Some programming is better than nothing” is not the same thing as saying, “We have high quality, incredibly effective programming.”

And once people are released, drug treatment can help people get their life on track and cognitive behavioral therapy can make people less likely to get in a fight at the bar or treat their partner better. A lot of things have huge benefits, especially among younger men, but it’s a much more intensive, one-on-one investment.

Most people who commit violence have themselves either been the direct victim of, or an immediate witness to, violence earlier on. So they go into prison traumatized, get exposed to more trauma, get programming but not great programming, and then can return to that same community where there aren’t many resources. So what people view as a sign of their personal failure can clearly be read as a sign of more broad systemic investment failure.

How do you see officials and voters weigh the benefits of locking people up and punishing them versus trying to spend money on more individualized treatment?

This is where you can find yourself getting caught in the complicated weeds of budgets. Efforts like violence interruption are usually paid for by the city or you have to create a special state program to fund them through a grant. That stacks the deck against them because you’re asking cities that are struggling fiscally post-2020 to dig to find money. That’s part of what drives the defund argument: cut police funding to fund this. But the politics just aren’t there yet.

officers on street
Authorities search the scene of the Sacramento shooting. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In the long term, we should try to fund efforts in a way that in another five to 10 years, public sector unions are strong and can go head to head with police unions in the fight over how to actually allocate money. But in the short run, trying to cut the police to fund these programs will almost certainly keep these programs underfunded because the police, as much as you’re starting to see resistance against police unions, are still too strong right now.

What sort of politics do you see at play when public figures hold up long rap sheets in the wake of a crime?

With members of Congress in particular, a lot of these conversations are purely abstract. Their districts are big and most of them are covering areas that are outside the main concentration of violence. For most of them, it is just posting with no real policies. I think right now politicians see long rap sheets that follow high-profile crimes as proof that we have to crack down.

There’s also a huge blowback against reform going on right now and it’s been pretty effective.

Police also say they feel genuinely threatened. And they are in fact threatened. Not just financially, but their entire social status is under attack. We’re starting to see the media and people become much more skeptical towards unions and the police and they aren’t just taking their word any more.

And that means how we tell these stories really matters and can change the entire conversation.

The way you can address the politics at play is to empower the people who live around those with long rap sheets, because local voices are more immune to fear mongering. They are the ones who know that that long rap sheet reflects someone on the edge of poverty and homelessness and that it requires a response. I also think that because they understand the broader context in which these bad crimes happen, they can disempower and weaken the abstract political fear and posturing.

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