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Highly controversial and widely discriminatory policing tactics known as “Stop and Frisk” don't have to be eliminated—it just requires better implementation in order for the nation’s police forces to become more effective in curbing crime.


This was one of the takeaways from the “Economic and Social Effects of Crime and Mass Incarceration in the United States” panel hosted by The Hamilton Project at Brookings – one of the world’s foremost think tanks -- at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. last month.

There, researchers and academics presented three new papers aimed at reducing the number of people in U.S. prisons in an effort to stop the federal economic bleeding: the United States currently spends an estimated $74 billion each year on corrections.

One of the most crucial ways to reduce the number of Americans in prison, says public policy professor and panel participant Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University, is to prevent the country’s most incarcerated citizens, young Black and Latino males – from ever entering the court system in the first place, and often for minor offenses stemming from “Stop and Frisk" policies.

“There are good reasons for deep skepticism about the relative effectiveness of ‘Stop and Frisk,’” he admits of the practice made infamous by the NYPD over the past few years, whereby officers stop and question pedestrians suspected of carrying weapons and other contraband.  But it only hurts police efforts to nab the real bad guys, he says, explaining, “Police effectiveness in responding to crime rests heavily on the willingness of citizens to report crimes and identify perpetrators, so policing tactics that alienate communities reduce the willingness of the citizens to cooperate with police.”

Secondly, the goal should be to focus on incarcerating violent criminals – not kids caught with small amounts of marijuana. “These arrests clog the court system with trivial cases and they also needlessly scar the records of those who are arrested, limiting their future employability and exposing them to increased legal risk.

“Practices like [Stop and Frisk] need to have less noxious effects on communities,” he concludes. “In order for [them to work, it] requires officers to receive proper training in how to do [them] in ways that are respectful and minimize the impact if no weapons are found. [They] have to be done within the parameters of the law, there has to be a [genuine] suspicion that an individual has a weapon and the individual should be given a reason why the [stop] occurred [in the first place.]."

But perhaps an even bigger challenge than police conduct, Nagin says, lies in the nation’s current mandatory minimum sentencing laws, for which an overhaul may have already begun. In 2013 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, for instance, announced the U.S. Justice Department would follow a new policy restricting mandatory minimum sentences in some drug cases.

“For four decades the prison population has been rising throughout the country,” he says. “We have now one percent of the adult population behind bars. Across the political spectrum there is recognition of the social and economic costs of incarceration, at least at it’s present scale, is not affordable. Can we reduce the incarceration rates without triggering more crime? I think the answer is yes, but only if we do not repeat our mistakes of the past.”

Those mistakes – Nagin explains– are previous U.S. policies built around faulty premises: that the police have no power to help prevent crime and that sending more people to prison for longer periods of time is an effective strategy in preventing crime.

“Conventional wisdom is the certainty of punishment – not its severity – is the more effective deterrent,” he says. “[In fact] there is good evidence that lengthy sentences are ineffective in deterring crime and are not efficient ways of preventing [it.]”

The papers’ authors, public policy professors Steven Raphael of UCLA Berkeley and Michael Stoll with UCLA Los Angeles, say their research indicates that taking the following steps can begin to reverse the tide of Americans entering into -- and remaining inside U.S. prisons -- longer than is efficient from a punitive and deterrent standpoint.

The papers propose that: “states introduce a greater degree of discretion into their sentencing and parole practices through two specific reforms: (1) a reduction in the scope and severity of truth-in-sentencing laws that mandate that inmates serve minimum proportions of their sentences, and (2) a reworking and, in many instances, abandonment of mandatory minimum sentences.”

Also “that states create incentives for localities to limit their use of state prison systems” by shouldering more of the financial burden for inmates themselves.

The authors also conclude that the United States must get to potential criminals before they ever commit crimes.

To that end they also presented a proposal that “the federal government aim to provide each teenager living in poverty in the United States with one year of behaviorally informed programming, intended to help youths recognize high-stakes situations when their automatic responses may be [unsuitably adapted to a situation.]” The program would be designed to “teach young people to slow down and think about what they are doing in an effort to help them “rewire their automatic responses.”

They’ve already carried out several randomized controlled trials in Chicago that demonstrate this approach, which they say psychologists call "cognitive behavioral therapy."

The researchers say this therapy has the potential to “reduce arrests for violent crime by 30 to 50 percent, improve schooling outcomes, and generate benefits to society that may be up to thirty times the program costs.”