Taking It to the Streets

Introduction

Few contemporary challenges command our attention as compellingly as the need to improve the ways that the nation understands, discusses, and makes choices about criminal justice. The criminal justice system reflects, and is driven by, often unstated assumptions about who commits crimes, who poses a danger, and who deserves fair treatment. These assumptions, in turn, animate choices about the allocation of resources, the deployment of law enforcement personnel, and the evaluation and implementation of policies. Perhaps most unsettling is that vigilant scrutiny of these policies and practices reveals an utterly common if nonetheless flawed pattern: top-down decision making in which the most powerful-the wealthy, the privileged, and the politically well-connected define justice priorities and initiatives to the exclusion of the vast majority in our society. Lawmakers offer perhaps the most visible manifestation of this problem. Confronted with episodic increases in crime and violence, federal, state, and local officials succumb to the magnetic pull of familiar strategies. They wage battles against crime, fight wars on drugs, or mount “quality-of-life” campaigns in others’ neighborhoods-low-income communities and communities of color-all the while presupposing the virtues of their own proposals. These legislators and political leaders routinely make sweeping claims about the latest campaign to reduce crime without having tested their operative assumptions, much less having invited informed and open debate. And the very communities in whose name and on whose streets these battles are fiercely fought rarely are permitted to play a role in evaluating such strategies or in determining whether they should be implemented at all. What results is a politically constructed vision of “justice for all” imposed by the few.

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