You might not know the name of Ja’Ron Smith unless you’re a very “in DC” type. But you probably know his work.
Remember the First Step Act, the monumental criminal justice reform legislation signed by former President Trump in 2018? That bill had Smith’s fingerprints all over it. At the time he served as special assistant to the president for domestic policy, but he’s spent years working behind the scenes to advance changes to the justice system—changes that focus on actually making society safer and using our resources efficiently.
This week, Smith publicly announced a new coalition that will focus on those very goals. And given his track record of success, this could spell good news for those working on the ground in this system.
Because the reality is that while we can (and do) criticize bad behavior and ineffective strategies by police, they’re largely set up to fail by the current system in place. The system basically asks police to act like road pirates, setting up funding structures that require police to harass the general public through fines, fees, and forfeitures in order to fund their own budgets. That means police spend the bulk of their time pursuing petty violations and non-violent offenses, like drug possession, that lead to higher payoffs for their department. That also means the bulk of violent offenses don’t even get solved—much less prevented.
In a statement announcing the coalition Smith said, “I’ve traveled through many communities that have been plagued by violence and crime. No one in those communities wants to defund the police. They want law enforcement to focus on preventing and solving violent crime.”
Smith is right.
The “defund the police” movement is deeply unpopular, especially in communities that actually have to live with high rates of violence. And while police are also unpopular, society is not yet convinced we can live without them—which means we have to find a way to live with them and that can only be achieved if they change their approaches.
To that end, Smith’s coalition, which is made up of other center-right organizations and leaders in the criminal justice space, will focus on four objectives covered in their statement of principles released with the announcement.
The first principle is to adequately fund police on the front end, an approach I previously detailed for BASEDPolitics here. By simply changing how police are funded we can change the incentive structure they operate under—prioritizing clearance rates for actual crimes and limiting the proceeds they make from ticketing and drug seizures.
“We must fund law enforcement through means that do not distort their objectives because every minute they spend on revenue-generating activities is a minute they are not spending on solving or preventing serious crime,” the statement says.
You may have guessed the second objective from the first, but the coalition goes on to say we must “focus law enforcement time and resources on preventing and solving serious crime.” To do that, we have to remove some of the obligations from the plate of police, like addressing people under mental duress and traffic-related incidents.
The coalition says, “Instead, proper investment in services that would help treat people with these issues would significantly reduce the time, energy, and resources currently required of law enforcement while providing more successful alternatives that solve the root causes of many individuals’ criminal actions.”
The third focal point for the coalition will be to “focus on evidence-based policies that reduce violent crime.” If that sounds a little wonky, let me explain what that looks like in the criminal justice world.
We know the way we currently approach policing is impossible. We ask police to patrol large areas and be all things to all people. Not only does that spread our resources ridiculously thin, it’s also just not a common sense strategy. That’s because violence is typically concentrated in a given area.
So to properly address violence, systems should instead lean into what’s known as focused deterrence. That means we target specific geographic areas and networks while also increasing services that can help pull people out of crime in those locations—think job programs, after school programs, mental health and addiction services, and educational initiatives.
They’re already doing this in places like Boston (where a program known as Operation Ceasefire was premiered that functions this way) and Dallas to great effect.
“The city of Dallas, Texas has recently implemented many of these strategies, including ‘hot spot’ policing, focused deterrence, ‘clean and green’ strategies, increased social services, and violence interrupters,” the principle states. “While most American cities saw increased rates of homicides in 2021, Dallas was able to decrease their homicide rate by 13% from 2020-2021. Additionally, arrests went down 11% during that time period; showing that focusing on the highest risk individuals, rather than strategies casting a wide net amounting to more arrests is a more effective route.”
The coalition’s fourth and final focus will be on continuing the legacy of right-wing criminal justice initiatives that have already found success. These policies are usually lumped under the umbrella of “smart on crime” initiatives and work to limit the contact non-violent people have with the justice system in the first place.
“For example, when a person is charged with a crime, their freedom prior to trial routinely rests on whether they have the means to pay financial bail, rather than their risk to society,” the principle states. “This allows those who are a public safety threat to buy their way out of jail, while low-risk defendants stay incarcerated prior to trial simply due to lack of ability to pay even a small amount of bail.”
These are the kinds of ideas that can actually make society safer. And they’ll make police safer, too, by not asking them to regularly insert themselves in unnecessary interactions that could escalate to violence. They ensure our resources go towards actually making us safer versus funding police to shake us down as we go about our day-to-day business. And they make sure we don’t continue to enable a system that often creates criminals through bad policies that push people into a life of crime.
Smith and the groups involved have an excellent track record of success when it comes to these matters. Here at BASEDPolitics, we’ll be rooting for them—and keeping you up to date on their important work.