Two changes in criminal justice made the news this week, changes that were greeted primarily with cheers from liberal commentators. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, impatient over Congress' consideration of changes to mandatory sentencing laws, ordered federal prosecutors to downgrade charges against non-violent drug offenders, thereby eliminating the possibility of long sentences. These mandatory sentences had been widely criticized and had been blamed for exponential increases in prison populations.
The second change came from a New York judge's ruling that New York City's "stop and frisk" procedures were racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others have credited the stop-and-frisk laws with removing thousands of illegal firearms from the streets and with reducing violent crime in the city. New York, once one of the most dangerous cities in the country, is now considered among the safest.
Little mention has been made about the potential impact of these changes, but it's not far-fetched to think that reducing sentences and eliminating the random questioning of suspicious pedestrians could result in higher crime rates. Police will tell you that getting just one habitual offender off the street can dramatically reduce the crime rate. One busy burglar, for example, can account for 10 percent or more of the break-ins in a small city. Identify him, charge him, sentence him to a long prison term, and the crime rate goes down significantly, and people's homes are noticeably safer.
America does not want to return to the frightening era of the crack epidemic, when drive-by shootings became commonplace, homes were burglarized by pitiful characters desperate for money to buy their next hit, and armed robberies were on the rise. New York doesn't want to return to the days when subway trains and platforms were frightening gambles with petty gangsters threatening riders with actual or implied violence.
We can hope for the best, that reducing prison populations will make America more productive and reduce the costs of incarceration and that New York City's streets will remain safe while minorities feel respected instead of suspected. But we really don't know how these changes will play out. If the crime rate soars again and innocent residents live in constant fear, we will look back at this week's decisions with regret.