Commentary Upfront Blog

The question that truly matters

The real question is, Who is thinking about this in new ways? Who is trying new approaches? Who is not being bound by limitations about what is possible?

A NEW YORK CITY POLICE OFFICER STANDS GUARD IN TIMES SQUARE.
CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS/FILE
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At the heart ofHenry Gass’s cover story this week is a lingering question: Is Mark Gonzalez right or wrong?

There is no question he makes for a fascinating leading man – a tattooed, Harley-riding Texas prosecutor who seems more likely to appear on an FX network drama than in the courthouses of Nueces County. But there he is, letting minor marijuana offenders get off with a fine and completion of a drug class, letting first-time domestic abusers avoid jail if they take classes on family violence for half a year, letting criminals trade punishment for a vocational degree. 

Is he a reformer trying to wean a justice system addicted to prison? Or is he an example of history repeating itself – undoing the get-tough-on-crime work of the 1980s, enabling a new crime wave?

The question of which is the correct approach has exposed a generational divide among prosecutors, Henry says. But in many ways, it’s the wrong question. 

The real question, Henry suggests, is not in deciding between “hard” and “soft” approaches to crime. “ ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches are constantly colliding and moving through the nation’s courtrooms in cycles,” he writes. 

The real question is, Who is thinking about this in new ways? Who is trying new approaches? Who is not being bound by limitations about what is possible? 

Two decades ago, the tough-on-crime “broken windows” theory of policing was a revelation for New York City. It held that no crime was too small – that the pathway to less violent crime was to refuse to accept crime at any level. It transformed New York. But it also filled prisons with a lost generation.

Now prosecutors like Mr. Gonzalez are in essence asking, “Can I do what New York did without throwing away the key for a generation of inmates? Can we make ourselves safer and improve the lives of those caught in a spiral of crime?”

It is easy to dismiss the efforts as naive. And indeed, maybe they won’t work. But embedded in Gonzalez’s efforts is a protest against the idea that this is as good as it gets – that further progress on the issue is just a pipe dream. 

New York faced that same skepticism two decades ago. Times Square was not much better than a red-light district. Crime was rampant. Organized crime operated with impunity. 

That was not as good as New York could be. Not by a long shot. 

In his cover story, Henry writes that “there is no cookie-cutter approach to fighting crime.” Models can provide lessons and can promote progress, as “broken windows” did. But the permanent solution to crime is not in sight. “Hard” approaches to crime are not the answer. Neither are “soft” ones. The full range of human ingenuity applied with lather, rinse, repeat frequency is the answer. 

In that way, the debate about crime in Texas’ Nueces County is emblematic of the broader American conversation on just about everything else. Are we expecting one side to have all the right answers? Or are we eager for innovative thinking that aspires to knock down old barriers?

That reframes the questions that really matter. 

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