Monday, February 16, 2009

President's Day Memo: Thank You Mr. President

For an outstanding month of leadership. I know its just the beginning. If I may, sir..

Forget criminal justice, social justice, victims rights, civil rights, it all comes down to this. America's large metropolitan areas, vast urbanized areas in which millions of Americans live in relatively close proximity, and which often have traditional large cities at their centers, are where a sustainable environmental and economic future for America will emerge, or not.

Over the last half century, those metropolitan areas have grown in a familiar but now obviously dangerous direction, i.e., towards maximum dispersal outwards toward the fringes of the metropolitan areas. The motivations and incentives for the change were legion, but all presupposed this, Americans with economic means, to a large extent independent of race and ethnicity (although nothing ever is fully so), sought to distance themselves from the risks associated with large cities and in particular their central neighborhoods. The primary risk was violent crime, associated than by numerous links to other maladies associated with cities, e.g., drugs, chaotic schools, parks with large numbers of homeless people and drug users, etc.

That era is over. Global warming is making this lifestyle unaffordable to the planet. The bursting of the real estate bubble (itself quite linked to the priority of fear of crime) has perhaps now also made this lifestyle unaffordable to the hard-pressed two worker families that make up most of our middle classes in America.

Central cities hold most of the keys to solving both problems. Only by persuading large portions of Americans to live in high density, low energy urban hubs can we create an environmentally and economically sustainable future for the American middle class. Fear of violent crime and the myriad of media charged associations through which that fear is woven through the American imagination (which includes fear of public transportation, housing, schools, etc.) constitutes a major impediment to persuading Americans to move back into central cities and assures that the most marketable forms of reurbanization will reproduce the highly securitized and racially segregated patterns of the suburbs.

For four decades the complex of public policies favoring law enforcement and harsher punishment for crime crime, known as the war on crime, has been our primary strategy for making the fear of violent crime go away. Now, with an unprecedented portion of our population and wealth locked in mass incarceration, it is clear that the war has become a major source of that fear. These practices now assure an ever larger population of prisoners and former prisoners who cannot easily be integrated into a society premised on fear and who cannot easily be governed in ways compatible with democracy and human rights. Law enforcement priorities and parole policies assure that large cities are the primary focus of mass incarceration (even as the rural location of prisons transfers their political and economic value to the peripheries of the metropolitan areas).

The present crisis offers a once in a generation opportunity to cut through the many Gordian knots that now tie political leadership up and with the war on crime (to produce what I call "governing through crime"). A rapid shift of resources from incarceration toward reinvesting social services in central city neighborhoods that house some of the neediest and most expensive citizens (the elderly and very young) in an infrastructure that is often the most expensive can create a robust and economically sustainable civil order ahead of the rebuilding of middle class neighborhoods in the huge swaths of currently underutilized lands that exist near the centers of almost every major American city (just look down at Detroit on your next night flight from Chicago to Washington).

Turning this around will not be easy. The federal government has helped encourage and incentivize the war on crime in many ways, but state law is the primary engine of mass incarceration and its corollaries. From the start of your administration, however, you can take every opportunity to withdraw federal encouragement. For example, instead of funding 100,000 new police officers for American communities, an incentive to invest in law enforcement solutions to insecurity, why not fund 100,000 public safety positions and leave it up to local governments to figure out whether they need another police officer, or another drug treatment provider, or another community mental health worker.

To make sure this is a bipartisan as the war on crime has been, come to California and meet with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who now knows more than any governor in the nation about how mass incarceration constitutes the "toxic assets" of our government sector (the potential costs of which now threaten the future of the whole state). I can assure you and Governor Schwarzenegger of a very warm welcome here in Berkeley if you wish to hold your meeting at our flagship public university (one of those assets that may soon need to be sold off in favor of prison spending) and a city that has long innovated in urban governance.

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