This was not a good year for the American criminal justice system. With violent crime rates lower than than they've been since the 1970s, we still saw a fresh deluge of attacks by police against unarmed people of color, from New York to Ferguson to a Walmart in Ohio. Making it all worse is that the cops involved avoided criminal prosecution, and militarized responses to the resulting unrest sent the message that the long arm of the law can do whatever it pleases. Meanwhile, white-collar criminals like Wall Street bankers continue to duck punishment for mercilessly fucking the global economy. The only question is if all of the protests and rage that have bubbled to the surface these past few months over two justice systems—one for the rich and white, another for the poor and brown—will amount to anything.
Given all the money and political capital invested in the prison-industrial complex, it's not very likely. But amid the bevy of depressing shit done in the name of public safety this year, there were some signs of hope.
Here's what we learned about crime in 2014.
Broken Windows Are an Existential Threat
In the 1980s and 1990s, when white people were freaking out about the crack epidemic and squeegee men who approached them a little too aggressively with offers of window washings, cops started sweating the small stuff. This approach—strictly enforcing low-level quality-of-life offenses in an effort to discourage more serious crimes—is called "broken windows theory," and it was popularized by politicians like former NYC Major Rudy Giuliani and criminologist George Kelling, who coined the term in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly story.
Given that violent crime has plummeted since those days, and New York, like many other cities, is safer than anyone can remember, you might think we could ease up on the whole harass-the-poor thing. But arrests for minor offenses blew up in NYC in 2014, thanks to the return of William J. Bratton, who pioneered broken windows when serving as police commissioner under Giuliani. The city's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, gave Bratton his old job back, and misdemeanor arrests for everything from dancing on the subway to smoking pot have gone through the roof.
This style of policing has spread across the country over the past couple of decades, and the fact that it's enjoying such a spectacular renaissance in America's largest city—there's even talk of exporting the approach worldwide—suggests it's here to stay.
Prison Populations Are Finally Leveling Out
We all know Americans love them some prisons. But while the volume of inmates in state prisons rose in 2014, the number of federal prisoners actually shrank, with 4800 fewer incarcerated people in the system in the 12-month period ending at the close of September. That's the first drop in decades, but deciphering exactly what's behind it is tricky; sentencing reforms at the federal level don't hurt, and politicians seem to be less afraid than they were, say, 20 years ago, of throwing out new ideas about how to deal with criminals.
If you look at the big picture—state, local, and federal—what we really see is flatness. Given that our prison population has been growing exponentially for decades now, thanks to the war on drugs and a for-profit crime and punishment regime, that may be the most we can ask for.
White-Collar Crime Is (Still) Totally Cool
It was another great year to be under scrutiny for shady financial dealings, as several of the country's largest banks cut sweetheart deals with the feds for tanking the global economy back in 2008. Typically, these settlements didn't require any admission of wrongdoing, nor did any individual executives lose their jobs—much less see time inside a cell.
Thanks to some whistleblowing, we know the culture of corruption in the financial industry extends to its regulators in the New York Fed. And since the eye-popping fines paid by banks that break the law end up costing less than the profits from all the "innovation" that got them in trouble in the first place, it's hard to imagine bankers being deterred from making life terrible again in the near future. All we can do is pray.
Eric Garner and Michael Brown's Lives Apparently Didn't Matter
These two unarmed black men—Brown a teenager, Eric Garner a father of six—were killed this year by white police officers. And both cops—Daniel Pantaleo of the NYPD and Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department—were cleared by grand juries. That makes crystal clear the structural mess that is our legal system, where prosecutors are in bed with local cops and black men are systematically targeted by police violence. Protests raged in both cases (first after the incidents, and again after the non-indictments), and the Department of Justice's civil rights division—helped by a former ACLU lawyer with expertise in racial discrimination—has promised to investigate.Of course, even outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder concedes the standard is awful high for civil rights cases. That he's looking to the exits kind of tells you everything you need to know.
Corruption Might Be Worse Than Ever
It was a banner year for the lowest of the low in American public life, with the chief executive of Virginia getting convicted on 11 counts of corruption in September. Along with his wife, Maureen, Bob McDonnell accepted golf trips, vacations, and loans from an influential local businessman. But this kind of explicit provision of goodies—which makes it nice and easy to indict and convict—is all too rare. Instead, most politicians get away with the legal kind of corruption, taking huge swaths of cash from billionaires via unregulated outside campaign organizations. The Supreme Court made that move a hell of a lot easier in April by axing limits on the total, or aggregate, amount people can donate to candidates or committees during any given election. An extension of the 2010 Citizens United ruling, this decision hasn't necessarily remade the system overnight so much as opened the door for a whole new level of oligarchy.
Speaking of oligarchs, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a potential indictment looming over his head now that the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, is looking into why he shuttered an anti-corruption commission this summer after it started looking into his activities, too. Zephyr Teachout, an academic and anti-corruption crusader, ran as a protest candidate in the Democratic primary, and managed to embarrass the guy, if nothing else, by siphoning off about a third of the vote. Unless and until the hammer comes down, though, Cuomo—and his many friends in the business community—will continue to have total control over the Empire State. And politicians across America will feel safe following his lead.
The Surveillance State Is Bigger than the NSA
We all remember Edward Snowden's incredible leaks about the scope and nature of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance last year, which continue to have ripple effects throughout the US elite power structure. But other law enforcement entities large and small are stepping up their own surveillance games. Local cops are increasingly experimenting with body cameras under the auspices of deterring all these police brutality cases, but as the filmed killing of a homeless man in New Mexico showed us, that probably isn't enough. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been citing national security to read peoples' emails—they don't know how many—with no accountability. If nothing else, it's apparent that we can't pin all our frustration at unlimited government intrusion on our friends over at the NSA.
We Definitely Tortured Some Folks, and Hummus Was Involved
President Barack Obama made the entire world's eyes roll this summer when, in his best folksy drawl, he conceded, "We tortured some folks" after 9/11. But we didn't learn exactly how horrific things got during the height of the terrorism panic until the Senate released its report on the CIA's torture practices in December. Besides even more of the "near-drownings" (aka waterboarding) than known previously, investigators revealed rectal feeding (of hummus, among other delicacies), threats of death and sexual abuse against prisoners' families, and incredibly extensive sleep deprivation. Oh, and none of it produced anything of value in the allegedly noble fight against Islamic militancy. No word yet on whether Obama will take this to its logical conclusion, and, you know, prosecute any of the guys responsible. But given his track record, we're not holding our breath.
So if you like national security excesses, a double standard for the rich and poor, corruption, oligarchy, racially-biased policing, and straight-up torture, this was a splendid year. If not, well, this might not be the place for you.
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