Former President Ronald Reagan is most well known for ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union. One of his lesser-known achievements has had an even greater impact on our lives: his defeat of the inexorable crime wave that seemed like a permanent fixture in American society. He didn’t get everything he wanted on crime legislation, but he set in motion a Republican Party that battered Democrats into submission across almost every state on the issue of crime, leading to the miraculous two decades of declining crime. Now, that is all being undone.
Reagan’s prescient warning
In a 1981 speech, Reagan decried liberal pro-criminal policies as rooted in “utopian presumptions about human nature.” “For all our science and sophistication, for all our justified pride in intellectual accomplishment, we should never forget: the jungle is always there, waiting to take us over,” said the 40th president in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in September 1981. He presciently observed that the liberal belief that criminal justice is solely for rehabilitation instead of for incapacitation and deterrent is rooted in “a belief that there was nothing permanent or absolute about man’s nature” and that by changing his environment “we could permanently change man and usher in a great new age.”
Look at repeat violent offenders. Reagan understood that if you take those guys off the streets, you will prevent most crime. Thus, while most crimes are state crimes, by successfully pushing for the federal mandatories on drug and gun violations, he took the robbers and murderers off the streets. But through the courts and some revisions of the laws, coupled with new liberal criminal justice policies in practically all 50 states, both parties have undone his work.
Baltimore residents marked the turn of the new year with a grim milestone: the record for the most murders per capita in city history. Yet just eight years ago, Baltimore set a three-decade low in homicides, registering just 197 in 2011, compared with 348 in 2019. How has the murder rate climbed this high in less than a decade?
Well, as Reagan warned, “Study after study shows that most serious crimes are the work of a relatively small group of hardened criminals. … It’s time to get these hardened criminals off the street and into jail.” This is what the federal government was doing with programs like “Project Exile” thanks to Reagan’s vision – working with local law enforcement to target the worst violent offenders and lock them up on firearms charges.
Many advocates of the First Step Act, even Republicans, misleadingly decried “low-level” offenders being locked up in federal prison for too long, but the reality is that those targeted by the feds for drugs and firearms are usually those responsible for many of the murders in cities like Baltimore and Chicago. Thankfully, conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton were successful in removing from the bill reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for gun felons, but the bill still contained many other loopholes for early release of some of these violent criminals, including gun felons.
Baltimore as the future of the entire country
This is why we will see a spike in crime across the nation. But cities like Baltimore have stopped working with federal prosecutors on gun felons, so they are already experiencing record high violence. As Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks observed, “Murders dropped by 30 percent, shootings by 40 percent and adult arrests by 43 percent” from 2006 to 2012 when Baltimore participated in the federal Safe Streets program.
According to Baltimore police, in 2018, of the 86 homicide suspects arrested, 70 had prior criminal records. Fifty-two had been previously arrested for drugs, 45 for violent offenses, 38 for gun crimes, and 23 were on probation. They simply don’t serve prison time like they did in the preceding two decades and are back on the streets.
Worse, police are so scared of being killed or prosecuted that they have stopped arresting many violent criminals. Between police fearing Baltimore’s prosecutor Marylin Mosby more than criminals do and the desire to reduce the prison population even more than the 30 percent decline over the past decade, they have simply taken a hands-off approach.
According to USA Today, from 2014 to 2017, the number of narcotics offenses reported by Baltimore police dropped 30 percent, the number of people they reported seeing with outstanding warrants dropped by half, and the number of instances where police stopped people for interviews on the streets dropped 70 percent.
The results are jarring. Baltimore’s murder rate is now 58 murders per 100,000 residents, higher than that of the most violent Central American countries. There are more than 1,500 open homicide cases from the past 10 years, and that doesn’t include many of the closed cases that failed to result in a conviction or where the suspect got off with a reduced sentence.
Trump can be the voice for the forgotten victims of crime
The problem across the nation is that the fight against crime has never been so one-sided. Most of the politicians in both parties are bought out by the well-oiled criminal “reform” movement, while there is not a single political action committee of note dedicated to the law-abiding citizens, victims of crime, and law enforcement. As the New York Times reported, last month, New Yorkers United for Justice, a group that has spent more than $2 million to push New York’s disastrous pro-criminal law abolishing bail, among other things, hosted an expensive retreat for state lawmakers. Theirs are the only voices being heard. Our side has no money.
This is where Trump comes into the picture as the only potential voice for citizens. In 1981, Reagan noted that while most of the power over criminal justice is left up to the states, he would “use the ‘bully pulpit’ of the presidency to remind the public of the seriousness of this problem.” And it worked spectacularly. Sadly, Trump missed the opportunity he had to fulfill his promise to stand up for law enforcement by agreeing to the premise of the jailbreakers with the First Step Act. 2020 provides him with a fresh start to walk in Reagan’s footsteps and use that bully pulpit to push for important changes at the federal level.
Last year, I listed seven steps Trump could take to fortify some of the holes that were shot through Reagan’s laws against federal gun felons, among other things. However, there were other goals Reagan pushed that never saw legislative action but are more necessary today than even then.
Reagan consistently decried the absurdity of the “exclusionary rule.” This is a rule created by federal courts and, as Reagan described in 1982, “can force a judge to throw out of court on the basis of a small technicality an entire case, no matter how guilty the defendant or how heinous the crime.” There is nothing in the Constitution that mandates this; it was created wholesale by the courts.
Reagan also promised to fix the other loopholes that the federal courts are creating to overturn ironclad state convictions. This happens every year in the court system and is even being expanded every day by Trump’s own Supreme Court picks.
Progressive libertarians often scoff at efforts to fight crime at the federal level, opting to hide behind the 10th Amendment and state powers to promote criminal justice “reform.” But the reality is that, as Reagan said, it is the federal courts that have created a litany of phantom constitutional loopholes for the worst violent criminals to get acquitted or to force a plea bargain. Identifying and rectifying the list of those technicalities that “overburden our court system and slow the wheels of justice,” as Reagan said, would reflect true reform-minded criminal justice.
President Reagan was the first person to call for true “criminal justice reform.” His “Criminal Justice Reform Act of 1982” included many of these ideas. It’s time to reclaim that mantle from those who highjacked it for the purpose of creating a haven for criminals and a living hell for law-abiding citizens – before more cities look like Baltimore.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.