Changing the ‘tough on crime’ narrative

By Jonathan Heller

Our fix for U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Washington Post op-ed from June 16, 2017

Above is our vision for how a U.S. Attorney General’s op ed could lift up a transformational narrative on crime and justice.

Instead, every day, we are bombarded with a particular ‘tough on crime’ narrative: our leaders and the media telling us that crime is rising and that the only solution is being tougher on crime. These messages fit into and reinforce a narrative and worldview about the criminal justice system that is shared by most residents of this country. That narrative and worldview limit what’s possible in terms of breaking down the current system that we know is so inequitable and unhealthy.

Here is an abbreviated version of the transformational narrative that we want to lift up — a story that focuses on public health values and principles:

The justice system must perform by our societal ideals: valuing every life, showing compassion and forgiveness, and restoring hope.

  • We need to create a justice system that addresses forms of discrimination that influence outcomes, including implicit bias and structural racism.
  • We need to create a justice system that doesn’t entangle people who haven’t broken the law.
  • We need to create a justice system that is accountable to improving health and safety.
  • The perpetrators are people of color, especially Black men. They are not like us. They are bad, lazy, undeserving people. Crime and violence are part of their culture. Those people are making individual choices to commit crime. Society as a whole — especially White society — has no role in creating the behavior of these bad people.
  • Punishment, retribution, and revenge deter crime. In fact, not punishing those who commit crime is immoral. Rehabilitation doesn’t work.
  • Those who commit violent crime are especially undeserving and we should show no sympathy toward them.
  • On the other hand, when a White person commits a crime — not that they do very often — it is sometimes justified and it does not represent the White race in any way. White heroin addicts, for example, deserve our sympathy — they’ve fallen on hard times — and are worth saving.
  • Police and prosecutors are experts we should trust. They deliver justice fairly and know what is best. Police violence is justified.

Bringing the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society

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