“Public Safety”: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Arthur Rizer and Bruce Western

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In the United States, national tragedy has a way of shaking up our hidebound institutions and presumptions. When faced with a crisis of nearly unimaginable size, complexity, or inhumanity, we go back to the drawing board and begin crafting plans to move forward.

As we stare down the double-barrel crisis of a pandemic and the ongoing calls for reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the levers of change are beginning to move yet again. What will come of this crucial growth period is yet to be seen, but as the past few months have shown us, many American don’t feel safe in their own homes, neighborhoods, or communities. This realization should motivate change — in this case, by redefining what “safety” means in America.

After September 11, we fundamentally changed the way we thought about national security. We started two wars, one that one of the authors fought in. Congress created an entirely new government agency — the Department of Homeland Security — and, for better and often worse, brought in new ideas about what security and public safety meant.

After the housing market crashed in 2008 and the global economy was nearly toppled, the United States made some efforts to redefine what financial stability meant for our banks and the middle class. The federal government and the Fed took historic steps to save the banks; less so for the middle class.

And after Willie Horton murdered Angela Miller — in the years following the 1988 presidential election — we “eliminated or severely curtailed” work release, furloughs, and other similar programs across the country and narrowly redefined public safety through the lens of super-predators. Tough-on-crime policy later proved to be devastating to the ability for individuals to reenter society after incarceration.

Crisis creates opportunity, but change has not always been in the right direction.

Now, we have an opening to change policing and how we think about safety. Nearly every criminal justice innovation in the past four decades that has championed “public safety,” has, in reality, promoted a growing reliance on incarceration.

The proliferation of mandatory minimums, pretrial detention, longer prison terms, stop-and-frisk policies, as well as new limitations on granting parole, were all conceived with the singular goal of reducing criminal behavior by so-called offenders. This idea of public safety has been the main justification for almost any proposed expansion of law enforcement powers, draconian sentencing, or punitive incarceration.

But, although there is evidence that incarceration can reduce crime in some scenarios, the research focuses narrowly on short-term effects for individuals. The long-term effects of incarceration on the wellbeing of families and communities can be vast and negative. The evidence also ignores the victimization that happens inside prisons and jails. And even if incarceration reduced the risk of crime, there are heavy legal, monetary, and moral considerations that should also be weighed on the scales of justice.

So, in this moment, as we reassess the risks of things as normal as handshakes or crowded planes, we should also challenge our belief in a thin idea of public safety rooted in incarceration.

This is particularly urgent in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has taught us that crowding jails and prisons to — and sometimes over — capacity creates a wide array of new risks not just for those incarcerated, but also corrections facility staff and surrounding communities. Our penal system, originally designed to ensure domestic tranquility, is now spreading an infectious disease and claiming lives in the process.

To this end, the Buckeye State serves as a grim warning.

Responding to an upsurge in COVID-19 cases in its Marion Correctional facility, Ohio seized the reins of leadership and began testing all incarcerated individuals in that prison in addition to those confined in the nearby Pickaway Correctional Institution. On review, it was revealed that over 88 percent of the adult males incarcerated at the Marion facility had tested positive for the coronavirus. No matter which facility in the Ohio penal system was spot-checked for COVID-19, the outcome always revealed a hotbed of infection concealed by prison walls. The correctional facilities in Pickaway and Marion still stand among the largest coronavirus hotspots in the country. When we look from a wider perspective, we find that these prisons are not simply isolated incidents. In fact, jails and prisons host a majority of the 10 largest virus clusters in the United States. While Ohio has ceased large-scale prison testing, the rising death tolls and soaring case numbers clearly say what officials are not.

For much of the public, those incarcerated seem distant, or simply not a point of concern. The mentality that prisoners are a “lost cause” is far too common, and this mindset usually leads to a certain coldness in how we treat those behind bars, almost as if it was preordained that these people be locked away. To subject droves of people to a highly infectious and deadly virus is not only a cruel punishment, but one that should send our own moral compasses spinning.

We should also recognize the improvidence of this style of prison administration. Correctional facilities are dynamic institutions, interchanging employees and visitors with their communities on a daily basis. The Marion Correctional facility in Ohio has sparked flare-ups of infection in nearby communities, many of which now host infection rates comparable to the Columbus and Cleveland metropolitan areas. In Chicago we see a similar story where one out of every six COVID-19 infections can be traced back to the Cook County Jail. To those who know the criminal justice system, much of this is unsurprising. Everyone from law enforcement to leased-out contractors filter through our nation’s prisons on a daily basis, and in the process, unknowingly bring germs and pathogens back to their communities at the end of every work day (and vice versa).

Our current way of ensuring “public safety” by way of mass incarceration is flatly incompatible with the present pandemic, even more so when we consider the fact that a viable vaccine still seems far off. With countless lives in the balance, the costs of over-criminalization should now be clear to everyone, even those who have previously sought to ignore the problem entirely.

In this world, overcrowded prisons are more like landmines than anything else. Hiding in plain sight and overlooked by most, they sit waiting for the one crisis that will cross the tipping point. At 130 percent capacity, the Ohio prison system is liable to explode.

Our idea of public safety must change. America is already criticized routinely by other developed countries for our system of mass incarceration. This pandemic should provide the clarity we need to consider the public health risks of prisons before getting even tougher on crime and packing ever more people into these toxic institutions.

Perhaps this crisis can also bring us to address the other negative effects of mass incarceration on society — how our “tough-on-crime” stance and the wider war on drugs have both helped to erode our civil liberties guaranteed under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Overcriminalization and the militarization of police have also done harm, creating a rift between communities of color and law enforcement to the detriment of both. We should also question whether or not locking up a family’s breadwinner, and the long-lasting, negative impacts that follow, fit within our definition of “public safety.”

To ask these questions is to open our minds — and those of policy makers — to the idea that locking away hundreds of thousands of souls in prisons and jails is not real public safety.

A new idea of public safety acknowledges that the threat of violence presented by law enforcement and incarceration causes significant damage to everyone, but poor communities of color in particular. A more enlightened notion of public safety incorporates safeguards against poverty and systemic racism, in effect, helping to drive down income insecurity, housing instability, undiagnosed health problems, environmental hazards, and incarceration itself.

So, what is safety in the pandemic era? For starters, safety has come to mean security in one’s home and livelihood, to be healthy, and to be free of fear for the well-being of loved ones. More prisons will not provide any of this. Whether it is sometime soon or in the far distant future, life will one day return to a sense of normalcy. Presumably, a vaccine will be found, people will return to work and school, and social life will restart. However, the pandemic has taught us that numerous injustices, flaws, and inefficiencies exist within our society, a lesson that we should not soon forget. As a society, we have many settled ideas and ways of doing business that need transformation. It is abundantly clear that our nervous and brittle approach to “public safety” is among the first in need of change.

Arthur Rizer is the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties Policy Director at the R Street Institute. Arthur is also an Adjunct Professor at Antonin Scalia Law School, GMU and a former police officer and federal prosecutor. Bruce Western is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Both authors are members of the Square One Project.

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