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The conservative approach to criminal justice:
fighting crime, supporting victims, and protecting taxpayers.

Why is it so Hard to Reform Criminal Justice?

| May 10, 2019

Policing is a core function of government, one of its few necessary functions, but is also the most intrusive institution in all of government. A deliberate restraint on government’s power and a constant review of governmental influence in our lives is a fundamental principle of conservatism and therefore applies to law enforcement at least as much as any other area of government. Or does it? 

Conservative doctrine respects the rule of law and demands that laws (and government) be limited and equally applied, punishments just, communities safe, and personal accountability enforced. In contrast, progressive doctrine looks to government to solve societal problems, the byproduct being ever more laws and larger government. The enforcement of the copious laws a government generates is tempered by very little appetite for personal accountability, and identity politics is often the basis for the calculus for how accountable an individual should be to these numerous laws.

This is admittedly a simplification of the two worldviews, and there are many points in between, but it gives some background for why the policing issue is such a political nightmare. None of the normal rules apply. Limited government conservatives routinely and reflexively defer to law enforcement—part of the very government they declare needs restraining and limiting—whenever policing legislation is considered. Progressives, normally content with passing all sorts of regulations and crimes, reflexively oppose those we empower to enforce the laws they pass, often with abolitionist talking points and accusations of racism. The two ends of this political spectrum often pass each other without hitting any point of agreement.

Further complicating the issue are the police unions. Police unions claim to speak for the police, but do they really? Police officers tend to be a right-of-center group. Unions (even police unions) are almost always left-of-center in their politics. Police officers and police unions have overlapping interests in some cases, but where they speak to genuine law enforcement officer concerns and where they speak to union concerns is lost in the dressing.

Unions are the darlings of the far left, the far right reflexively supports law enforcement, and the police union is therefore a political paradox unseen anywhere else.  Police unions either represent collectivist union interests or they represent government agents dictating the terms of their power in relation to your liberty-pick your poison.

What other entity is given the courtesy by legislative members to change bills and then still come up to testify against the amended bill. Why would a member modify a bill to appease the unions when they will not support the bill even as amended? The next time you hear a police officer claim he is only enforcing the laws that the legislature makes (as it should be), consider the fact that those supposedly speaking on his behalf probably had more than a little hand in crafting that law. How perverse is that?

A similar dynamic is seen in with prosecuting attorneys. Whether the issue at hand is civil asset forfeiture or prudent restraints placed upon a grand jury, without fail members of their professional association show up at hearings to allege that even if a modicum of reform were to pass, cities would burn to the ground. Such sensational alarmism (and those who would uncritically take it as gospel) reduces liberty to the mere scope that government agents think it fitting for the public to enjoy; completely contrary to our founding principles

Civil asset forfeiture reform made it to the platform of both political parties this year, yet any attempt at reforming this process is met with intense law enforcement and district attorney resistance. Think about that. The government entities that get to keep the revenue generated by the practice-a practice that relies on continued criminal activity to keep the revenue stream up-have an outsized voice in front of the same government they are a part of.  If the government represents itself to the government with disproportionate effect, who represents the citizens?

As a retired police officer, former academy director, and current policy analyst, I find this situation frustrating.  I want good policies to be passed into law.  I want safe communities, limited government involvement, and justice.  I want our police to be the finest members of our society, as we so often refer to them.  I want there to be some agreement on how all of that should look.  But there is not.

As In the interest of getting both sides of the political spectrum to reevaluate their position and tactics, I pose a question for each. 

To conservatives I would ask: What part of limiting and restraining government involves deferring to the arm of the government in all policy matters where the powers and authorities of that arm are reviewed? 

To progressives I would ask: In what other aspect of your dealings with people does calling them racist or attributing vile intentions to their actions garner support and consensus?

A politician’s view on policing has become a litmus test for both sides. Because of this, moving even reasonable legislation ends up being derailed by ironically competing political philosophies. One side wants laws but despises those who would enforce them, the other side wants government out of our lives but balks at any restraint on its most intrusive arm. 

Criminal Justice reform should not be viewed as an adversarial concept with the men and women of law enforcement, if it were I would find no part in it.  I view reasonable reform as a means to ensure that it remains the honorable institution I have always believed it to be. Until we can agree that not all policies that reform policing are anti-police and that the police are not the bad guys we will continue to miss opportunities to come together on good legislation.

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Randy Petersen spent 21 years as a police officer working in the patrol, investigations, training, and administrative divisions.  He retired as a patrol watch commander in 2014 and became the director of a police academy here in Texas.  He is currently the Senior Researcher for the policing initiative at Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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