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Locking people up – even racists – is not the answer.
From Kyle Rittenhouse to Kim Potter, accountability must come from restoration, not incarceration.
A few days ago, Kim Potter, the Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Daunte Wright, was convicted of manslaughter. She faces a sentence of up to 15 years for the crime, and many cheered the verdict, including Wright’s family. Progressives cheered the verdict as a rare example of accountability for police violence.
However, while there have been some notable examples of other success in this regard — notably, convictions in the cases of George Floyd and Ahmed Arbery — the total number of police killings has apparently not changed significantly since Floyd’s murder in May of 2020. Indeed, while 2021 has seen a small drop in shootings, there was actually an increase in 2020.
This is not surprising because there appears to be little evidence that long sentences deter crime. While there are some caveats to this — e.g., Freakonomics author and economist Steve Levitt has offered a contrarian position on the link between deterrence and imprisonment — the consensus in the literature appears to be that prison is not a particularly effective way of protecting victims.
Just as importantly, it’s not clear, even in the cases where police officers are perpetrators, that victims’ families want the officers to be imprisoned. The Urban Institute has compiled data suggesting that most victims would prefer our criminal justice system focus on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Indeed, “victims want to hold people accountable not just through prison, but also through rehabilitation, mental health treatment, drug treatment, community supervision, and community service.”
I have had personal conversations with a family member of Kayla Moore, a black woman killed by the Berkeley police in 2013. And I have never gotten the sense from her family that punishment of the officers was something that would help them heal. Rather, the family is most interested in accountability with the entire political system of Berkeley.
The final note on this is something I’ve written about previously: the mass incarceration of people in this nation, at levels unprecedented in human history. The United States puts more people in prison, on a per capita basis, than any nation on this planet. We put 5 times as many people behind bars as compared to China, a brutal quasi-totalitarian state. We put nearly 2 times as many people behind bars as Russia, which is controlled by a vengeful, tin pot dictator.
This places an enormous human and financial toll on our entire society, and with little payoff for victims of crimes. And while it is not typically the Derek Chauvins, Kyle Rittenhouses, or Kim Potters of the world who end up behind bars, it is important, for those of us who believe mass incarceration is an ethical disaster, to be consistent. The idea that restoration, and not punishment, is the solution to crime must be true regardless of the identity of the criminal at issue. To act otherwise would open us to allegations of hypocrisy.
There’s a deeper point here, however. The recent prosecutions of police officers and right wing activists, from Kyle Rittenhouse to the Jan 6 rioters, had the potential to start an important dialogue between the right and the left on civil rights and criminal justice. For the first time, many white and rural Americans have been forced to reckon with a criminal justice system that could land them, or people like them, in prison for years. This could have been an opportunity for us to have a nationwide dialogue on incarceration, to form the sort of societal consensus among former adversaries that led to groundbreaking civil rights legislation in the 1960s. (Lyndon Johnson was an avowed racist for years before working with King on the Civil Rights Act.)
But, too often, progressives seem more intent on getting revenge on those who have abused police power in the past, or who have been the beneficiaries of privilege that insulated them from police brutality. That is not a likely path to victory, as the failure of the defund the police movement has shown. The result is that mass incarceration will likely continue; and poor, marginalized communities will suffer the brunt of that failed policy.
Imagine, instead, we harnessed the powerful narratives of police brutality and racism for a different and non-punitive purpose: imagining a criminal justice system focused on restoration of those harmed, rather than punishment of those who did them wrong. Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham Jean, who was killed in his own home by a reckless Dallas police officer, was a powerful demonstration of this. Instead of asking for his brother’s killer to be imprisoned, he broke down into tears and said he forgave her, and asked if he could give her a hug.
This sort of radical forgiveness is hard. It should not be expected of any victim. But, if our goal is systemic change, it’s perhaps our best path forward.