gop debate 092723getty rowdy

How tonight’s debate can spark a nuanced conversation on crime 


gop debate 092723getty rowdy

After three weeks of paralysis in the U.S. House, the candidates taking the stage for the third Republican presidential debate will be challenged to prove that they can navigate Washington’s gridlock to tackle America’s toughest challenges at home and abroad. 

One top priority is ensuring that every American, regardless of their zip code, enjoys a basic level of safety.

While crimes other than auto theft have declined over the last year, violent crime remains at levels above those in 2019 in many places, especially in the nation’s capital. Crime received little attention in the first two debates, so tonight’s forum in Miami presents an opportunity for a discussion that goes beyond slogans to offer solutions. The candidates, and NBC’s moderators, should take it.

The first step toward making headway is acknowledging both substantial progress and the significant work that remains. Some on the far left reflexively dismiss the specter of crime as an issue in the presidential race. To be sure, it has too often been exploited, though many forget that it was former Vice President Al Gore who was the first to weaponize Willie Horton’s furlough against Michael Dukakis.

In addition to avoiding generalizations based on one sensational case, moderators and candidates must not be distracted by shiny objects and instead help voters see the forest for the trees. This means focusing on the policies and practices that move the needle, not those that have little impact or do not involve the federal government.

For example, in his presidential campaigns, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made abolishing private prisons a top issue, even though they account for just 7 percent of incarceration and are not responsible for our nation’s high imprisonment rates compared with other developed nations. 

Similarly, some GOP candidates in this cycle are assailing “progressive prosecutors.” While the approach taken by this new wave of district attorneys is fair game for their putative opponents, these officials are locally elected. Accordingly, the principles of federalism and democracy preclude the federal government from removing or overriding them. Consequently, attention in a presidential debate is better spent elsewhere.

But protecting our safety and liberty is the first obligation of government, and although policing and corrections should remain primarily state and local responsibilities, there is a legitimate federal role. This includes setting federal sentencing and corrections policy, distributing billions in public safety funding to states and local jurisdictions and leveraging the presidential bully pulpit to champion equal and effective justice for all.

Moreover, candidates should recognize that finding common ground on effective criminal justice policy requires dispensing with the false dichotomy between social and personal responsibility, in which progressives focus only on root causes of crime while many on the right revert to mantras such as “do the crime, do the time.” Holding people accountable for the choices they make is crucial, but so is changing the generational dynamics of concentrated poverty and neglect that fuel cycles of crime in certain areas.

In these areas, too many young people feel inclined to join gangs for self-protection or self-esteem. Preventing crime not only means using the threat of consequences but also deploying law enforcement interventions that work hand-in-glove with residents to drive out gang leaders. The engagement of other systems to provide positive educational and vocational pathways for young people is equally critical.

As such, the public safety conversation at the debate should include place-based strategies to curtail violent crime.

In a world of limited resources, where violent crime is far from evenly distributed across American communities, place-based interventions are essential. The micro-hotspot approach credited for sharply reducing violent crime in Tucson and Dallas, where the city was divided into 101,000 grids, is particularly promising. This strategy recognizes that it is often not entire neighborhoods that are always extremely dangerous, but rather certain blocks at certain times of day, which evolve over time.

A modern, holistic place-based strategy emphasizes both police and community responses. Surging officers to hotspots makes sense because research indicates that a more visible police presence deters many types of street crime and that when police officers build relationships and trust with community members, they are more likely to obtain the information needed to solve a greater percentage of serious crimes. For example, after Camden, N.J., rebuilt trust through a restructuring of its police department, case clearance rates increased dramatically.

At the same, this holistic place-based approach also entails mobilizing other systems that have a role in preventing crime. This means public works agencies that install street lighting, school systems that offer after-school programs to keep young people engaged with schoolwork rather than gangs, labor departments that arrange summer jobs, housing agencies that reclaim abandoned buildings that otherwise become stash houses for drug dealing and human trafficking, and nonprofit organizations that dispatch violence interrupters to street corners and hospital beds to prevent retaliatory shootings.

In all these sectors, the federal government is chiefly a funder and convener that forges partnerships with local and state entities, performs evaluations and shares best practices. Through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Department of Justice is now delivering historic funding in areas such as violence interruption.

One possible next step for this administration or any future one is working more closely with other federal agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure crime hotspots are prioritized in their grant portfolios given the role of multiple systems in preventing crime. This could include establishing an interagency council on place-based crime prevention, such as the one in the Trump administration that convened various cabinet agencies, leveraging the resources of each to improve reentry from prisons.

These approaches may not be glamorous, but they work. They can’t happen solely through federal action, nor can they occur at scale overnight. But presidential leadership that drives collaboration between federal, state and local governments and community organizations in the areas of greatest need can help — and truly make a difference.

Are we asking too much for a campaign in which crime is neither ignored nor turned into a blame game? If an adult discussion is possible, the next debate is a great place to start.

Marc A. Levin, Esq. is chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice and can be reached at and on X at @marcalevin.

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