Clarence Page: Judge gets it right in stop-and-frisk ruling

By CLARENCE PAGEAugust 16, 2013 

Up against the wall, Mr. Mayor! Sometimes law enforcers need to be stopped, questioned and frisked, too.

I am referring, of course, to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The usually likable Mayor Mike unfortunately hasn't done enough in the eyes of federal Judge Shira Scheindlin to flush racial and ethnic profiling out of his city's stop-and-frisk police policies.

Her ruling came coincidentally on the same day that Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new policy to reduce the use of "draconian mandatory minimum sentences" against low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

Both moves illustrate a sea change in the nation's attitudes toward crime, the drug war and the outlandish cost in tax dollars and ruined lives of what both political sides criticize as "the prison-industrial complex.

Ironically, Holder, in a Democratic administration, is rolling back tough-sentencing policies that originally were pushed by Democratic lawmakers who didn't want to look soft on crime in President Ronald Reagan's 1980s.

But now? What a difference a generation, smarter community policing and a mid-1990s plunge in crime rates make.

Even in today's polarized political climate, the bipartisan coalition that escalated the war on crime is being emulated by a bipartisan coalition to replace costly mass incarceration with smarter alternative sentences.

"With nearly every state budget strained by the economic crisis," Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist wrote in the conservative National Review, "it is critical that conservatives begin to stand up for criminal-justice policies that ensure the public's safety in a cost-effective manner."

Norquist and other big-name conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former drug czar Bill Bennett, have signed on to the Texas-based Right on Crime, a leader in seeking cost-effective alternatives to mass incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

In a statement on behalf of Right on Crime, Marc Levin, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said, "It's good to see the Administration following the lead of conservative states such as Texas, South Carolina and Georgia that have proven it's possible to reduce crime while also reducing criminal justice spending."

Stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimums are emblematic of the "tough-on-crime" drug war politics that began in the era of President Richard Nixon's 1960s and reached a fever pitch in President Ronald Reagan's 1980s.

Yet, as Holder said, too many small-time or first-time offenders were sentenced to too much time for too little of a crime. Today, he said, the system has 40 percent more prisoners than it was designed to hold -- with almost half doing time for drug offenses.

The big remaining question amid these new attitudes is whether Congress, especially in the Republican-controlled and perpetually locked-in-gridlock House, will respond with bipartisan alternatives for those who already have been incarcerated. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses to ease mandatory minimums, but they're awaiting hearings. Sensible leadership needs to give them a nudge.

On the stop-and-frisk front, there have been too many stops, especially among young black and Hispanic males, and too few arrests.

Of the 4.4 million times that New Yorkers were stopped and frisked between 2004 and 2012, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 88 percent failed to turn up evidence of a crime -- and 80 percent of the stops were of blacks and Hispanics.

Yet Judge Scheindlin did not overturn stop-and-frisk policy. It remains in her eyes an important tool of law enforcement that, as the mayor says, has widespread support -- even in crime-plagued neighborhoods that produce most of the complaints about its abuse.

But as it has been practiced on the street, Scheindlin's ruling called it "indirect racial profiling."

To remedy that situation, she ordered a new independent police monitor and some police will have to wear cameras on the beat. That would help to make sure, among other things, that the stops meet the "reasonable suspicion" standard set by Supreme Court precedents. That's not too much to ask in the continuing struggle to find a sensible balance between liberty, privacy and crime fighting.

Clarence Page is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune. E-mail, cpage@tribune.com.

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