Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that prosecuting people for petty crimes won’t reduce violent crime in American cities. You can find a counterpoint here, where former Martinsburg Police Chief Maurice Richards argues that prosecuting petty crimes has been an effective way to reduce violent crime as well.
Since the inception of LBJ’s “War on Crime” fifty years ago and the multiple iterations implemented in recent years, experts in criminology have struggled to find any meaningful reduction in crime. In fact, the opposite has been seen. Incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the years to the point that the United States has the highest prison population in the world — and still violent crime is on the rise. Despite the total failure of these programs, we’ve seen repeated attempts to replicate them across the country, including President Biden’s current appetite for new gun laws and regulations. Why do we keep recycling these failed policies?
To get to the root of the problem, it’s imperative to understand why these policies inevitably fail. First, they are centered around the repeatedly disproven Broken Windows Theory, which holds that petty crimes like vandalism and shoplifting should be harshly penalized in order to deter people from committing worse or violent crimes. The Broken Windows Theory was introduced in the 1980s, but didn’t receive wide attention until the 1990s when then-mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani partnered with New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to tackle the crime wave they were seeing. Supporters of this policy tout that it led to a reduction in violent crime.
Instead of deterring crime though, what came from this strategy was abusive and racially discriminatory policies like stop-and-frisk. Unarticulated to the public at the time, the real goal was to rid the city of what the mayoral administration identified as “undesirables.” In addition to a sharp spike in incarceration, these “tough on crime” tactics also rapidly accelerated the already-strained relationship between law enforcement and minorities across the U.S.
New York City wasn’t the only place where overzealous policing became the norm. Around that same time, the entire country experienced the advent of “overcriminalization,” or the practice of implementing overly-punitive laws. These practices, all stemming from this “War On Crime,” were meant to reduce crime across the board. But like the Broken Window Theory, overcriminalization did far more damage than improvement to society. It is not “broken windows” that lead to crime — rather, the creation and enforcement of these petty crimes struck at the root of communities across the country by incarcerating wide swaths of mostly harmless people and removing them from their families for decades at a time.
In recent years, prestigious academic institutions like Harvard and Northeastern, along with well-established organizations like Right on Crime, the Cato Institute and the Libertarian Party, have all spoken out on why overcriminalization does more harm than good. Not only are those institutions and organizations speaking out against these failed policies, they are offering and successfully lobbying for the implementation of a multi-faceted approach to preventing crime.
The first step is to overhaul the criminal justice system. Archaic and counterproductive occupational licensing laws and zoning ordinances make it harder for people, especially those in urban communities, to open businesses and should be eliminated. It also means making changes to our legal system so that victimless and petty crimes don’t have life-ruining consequences. When people make a mistake and commit a petty crime, they have a blemish on their criminal record that follows them for the rest of their lives. It’s difficult to find employment. It’s even more difficult to find housing. Shunned from “legitimate” employment, those with convictions on even minor crimes often find themselves making a living in the dangerous underground market for illegal drugs in order to sustain themselves and their families.
The next step, which is reform-based and has been successful across the country, is building strong communities and investing in people. When people are empowered to take ownership of their neighborhoods and cities and when they have a vested interest in their community’s success, they are less likely to commit a crime against that community. For example, communities that have strong juvenile diversionary programs and strong mentorship programs give at-risk youth a fighting chance to stay out of trouble. In fact, young people who go through these programs frequently end up starting businesses of their own in their communities and become quite successful in the process.
As someone who has worked with current and former incarcerated individuals, I’ve seen how the prosecution of victimless and petty crimes ruins lives, livelihoods, and families. It’s part of the reason I came to the Libertarian Party. For the past 50 years, the Libertarian Party has been the only consistent voice on this issue. Our candidates provide an option to voters that they simply do not get from the old parties. We know that people need to be empowered to take care of their communities, and we believe the best way for them to do this is to remove not only big government, but bad government so people are free to realize their potential. We seek a world set free in our lifetime, and that must start here at home.
Laryssa Gaughen is the Director of Communications for the Libertarian Party.