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October 7, 2008

A dollars and sense criticism of Senator Obama's crime-fighting plans

Writing over at Slate, Radley Balko has this very interesting critique of Senator Obama's latest campaign talk about crime and justice issues. The piece is titled "Bad Cop: Why Obama is getting criminal justice policy wrong," and here are snippets from the start of a strong piece that should be read in full:

When Sen. Barack Obama expressed concern early in the primary season that there are more young black men in prison than in college, he raised hope that he might be the first major-party candidate in a generation to adopt a more nuanced criminal policy than the typical "longer sentences, more prisons, more cops."...

But in the last month, Obama's line on criminal justice has been a lot less encouraging.  His running mate selection of Joe Biden, long one of the Senate's most strident crime hawks and staunchest drug warriors, was telling.  Since the vice-presidential pick, Obama and Biden have embraced criminal justice policies geared toward a larger federal presence in law enforcement, a trend that started in the Nixon administration and that has skewed local police priorities toward the slogan-based crime policies of Congress, like "more arrests" and "stop coddling criminals."

In particular, Biden and Obama have promised to beef up two federal grant programs critics say have exacerbated many of the very problems Obama expressed concern about earlier in the primaries.  Obama and Biden's position shows an unwillingness to think critically about criminal justice.  They are opting instead for the reflexive belief that more federal involvement is always preferable to less.

The rest of the commentary goes on to explain why putting more federal dollars into more local cops into more federal drug task forces may often prove to be more harmful than helpful (and always proves to be expensive).  Here is the key theme to Balko's analysis and his criticism of federal involvement in local criminal justice issues: "The main problem with federal block grants is that once they're issued, Congress can't monitor them to be sure they're spent properly."

In short, Balko highlights critical concerns that apply to all government activities: the importance of following the money and of demanding cost-benefit accountability and effectiveness.  Indeed, if we were to seriously follow the money and demand cost-benefit accountability and effectiveness throughout all aspects of our criminal justice systems, I think we would have a much more sound and sensible approach to all sorts of crimes and punishments.

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October 7, 2008 at 09:16 AM | Permalink


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"...Joe Biden, long one of the Senate's most strident crime hawks..."

What is Balko smoking?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 7, 2008 12:02:08 PM

Biden is often associated with the RAVE ACT. Of course, everyone in the Senate gets to call themselves "anti-crime." The phrase means nothing to real people and whatever the little people want to think it means.

Posted by: S.cotusS | Oct 7, 2008 1:31:27 PM

Isn't Biden's sex offender virtual driver's license for the Internet awaiting the President's signature? The government no doubt in part wants to squash anonymous free speech because too many are calling politicians liars and proving it.

Posted by: | Oct 7, 2008 6:18:48 PM

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