Criminal Justice Reform?

Many of us expected President Biden to discuss prospects for criminal justice reform, as my colleague Professor Nolan Bennet noted before the State of the Union and after, in highlighting the downplaying of Biden’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. After the murder of George Floyd by the police in May 2020, the world saw a wave of demands to address systemic racism and transform police and prison systems. Most of the proposed legislation in the U.S. remains stalled in congress. Representative Cori Bush, a leading advocate for structural changes like defunding the police and reinvesting in communities, criticized President Biden for failing to “mention saving Black lives once” in his address:

Instead, President Biden rejected calls to reallocate funds from the police to other public services, one aspect of the movement to “defund the police,” and called for more funds for the police:

“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training. Resources and training they need to protect their communities.”

President Biden, 2022 State of the Union Address

In the midst of low approval ratings and a crucial midterm election year, doubling down on police funding could be read as an attempt to appeal to moderates or to reach across the aisle to conservatives like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who gave a standing ovation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also tried to distance the Democratic Party from the defund movement, last month quoting Representative Ritchie Torres announcing the defund movement as dead. None of this may come as a surprise given the longer history of liberals trying to avoid the label, “soft on crime.” Biden was one of the main proponents of the 1994 “Crime Bill” (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), the largest bill to allocate federal funding to local and state law enforcement agencies in U.S. history. In combination with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, this legislation is often credited with exacerbating the prison boom and rapidly increasing mass incarceration to globally unprecedented levels. Its impact is especially felt in Wisconsin, which is ranked second in the country for disparity in incarceration rates between Black and white people. Recently, Former Governor Tommy Thompson expressed regret about the number of people who were incarcerated under his tenure, leading him to launch a new grant for expanding prison education, which we are working on at UW-Green Bay.

President Biden also paid homage to the “War on Drugs” by calling for all levels of law enforcement to pursue drug traffickers domestically and at the U.S.-Mexico border. As my colleague Professor Alise Coen pointed out in her blogpost, President Biden seemed to gloss over the details of his immigration plan, saying, “we need to secure our border and fix the immigration system.”

This might raise two questions for Wisconsinites:

How much does Wisconsin spend on the police? The Wisconsin Policy Forum found that annually over the past thirty years (1986-2018), “law enforcement and police protection spending have continued to be the foremost spending priority in municipal budgets, receiving one out of every five operating and capital dollars spent by municipalities in the state.” This is in comparison to other municipal priorities, such as K-12 education, hospitals, highways, and electricity. More recent data (2018-2019) shows that municipalities across Wisconsin had begun to decrease their police budgets before the defund movement sparked this national conversation, possibly due to strict property tax limits and decreasing state aid.

Will this “tough on crime” approach appeal to voters? A Pew Research poll from October 2021 found that 47% of respondents wanted to see more spending on police in their area, an increase from 31% in June 2020. A new UW-Green Bay poll asked Wisconsinites in October 2021 what they thought about police funding. In an innovative survey experiment created by political science undergraduate students and faculty, 16% of respondents either somewhat or strongly supported the movement known as “defund the police,” while 53% somewhat or strongly supported reallocating some police funds. This suggests that the charged political rhetoric and media ecosystem around the defund movement could play a role in shaping how people understand it. Stay tuned for more analysis of this new survey data.

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