Let’s Talk About Crime Rates

I don’t watch much television, and when I do watch, it’s generally via streaming, so I’ve been spared a lot of the mindless political ads that are driving everyone nuts as the midterms approach.

However, I do watch the news on “live” TV, and I have been utterly appalled by a couple of ads slamming our incumbent Prosecutor (who was depicted, in time-honored “dirty politics” fashion, in a dark, grainy and menacing photo that barely resembled him.)

The ads I saw blamed the prosecutor for the fact that one murderer possessed a gun, and another for the fact that a “bad guy” was on the street (presumably after serving the term for which he’d been imprisoned.)

The angry voice-overs didn’t blame–or even mention– Indiana’s idiot legislators, who specify the punishments available to prosecutors and have worked assiduously to ensure that every Hoosier malcontent will have immediate access to lethal firepower. And it didn’t blame police for failing to intervene before the fatal incidents (perhaps using ESP, a la “Minority Report”?).

Nope. All the prosecutor’s fault.

Evidently, the Republican challenger running for the office–whose lack of any criminal justice experience is abundantly clear–wants voters to believe that an elected prosecutor should be spending staff time and resources bringing long-shot lawsuits against the thousands of unhinged people who own guns in Indianapolis.

(By the way, I can just hear those “Second Amendment” purists if a Prosecutor did try to use Indiana’s unwieldy version of a “red flag” statute to confiscate some of that firepower. )

I assume the local Republican candidate’s effort to frighten citizens–“you are in danger because your prosecutor isn’t trying to confiscate weapons from suspicious scary people!!”–is part of the GOP’s nationwide effort to focus on crime and blame that crime on Democratic officeholders. I’m told that Fox “News” runs grainy “look at how dangerous big cities are” footage 24/7.

I would say that coverage is misleading, but it’s actually a lot worse than misleading, because it is based on an outright lie about where crime rates are high and where they aren’t.

According to national figures, these are the ten states where crime rates are worst:

New Mexico – 6,462.03 per 100,000 people
Louisiana – 6,408.22 per 100,000 people
Colorado – 6,090.76 per 100,000 people
South Carolina – 5,972.84 per 100,000 people
Arkansas – 5,898.75 per 100,000 people
Oklahoma – 5,869.82 per 100,000 people
Washington – 5,758.57 per 100,000 people
Tennessee – 5,658.30 per 100,000 people
Oregon – 5,609.89 per 100,000 people
Missouri – 5,604.78 per 100,000 people

Perhaps you noticed something about that list: it’s mostly Red States. (The four states with the lowest crime rates are Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New Jersey.) 

Chris Hayes recently addressed the GOP’s dishonest framing of crime, and where that crime occurs, with a really brilliant parody of a Fox “ad”–using the deep-red state of Oklahoma, where Republicans rule and the two largest cities have Republican mayors, as his focus. I encourage you to click through and watch it, but if you don’t have time, I’ll give you the punch line: Oklahoma has a much higher crime rate than either California or New York.

As Hayes quite properly noted, the cities and states in Red America–where crime rates are higher than in our much-maligned Blue cities–haven’t been “defunding” the police, or releasing convicted felons, or doing any of the other nefarious, pro-crime things that–according to Fox  and dishonest political ads– are causing crime to spike. 

Which brings me back to the Indianapolis Prosecutor’s race and my consistent pre-occupation with civic literacy. The person who created that deeply stupid ad clearly assumes that no one watching it has a clue what the actual job description of a Prosecutor is,  what the proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion looks like– or how much of a county prosecutor’s job depends on competent policing and the workability of laws passed by legislators.  

There are all kinds of criticisms that can be fairly leveled at county prosecutors: the merits of the plea bargains they negotiate, the deployment of their necessarily limited resources, the professionalism of the staff, the obvious ambitions of the incumbent…(in the past, Indianapolis has had some real “hot dogs” in that office, spending most of their time in political pandering and running to the media to spin every court decision. Like Todd Rokita at the state level.)

In my humble opinion, the incumbent Marion County Prosecutor–Ryan Mears–is a very good lawyer and a quality person who has been doing an excellent job. He has been very transparent about his priorities (which don’t include focusing on low-level marijuana use or violations of Indiana’s new, draconian abortion ban), and I thoroughly agree with those priorities. Others are free to disagree, and that sort of disagreement is entirely legitimate.

Judging by the ads being run by his challenger, I guess legitimate criticisms weren’t available.


The Importance Of Local Politics

One of the reasons so many of us in today’s America feel angry and hopeless is the effect of what has been called the “nationalization of politics.’  That nationalization has been facilitated by the media we consume , which reports almost exclusively on national news– local newspapers that still exist increasingly confine their coverage to sports and crime and no longer regularly cover local government and politics.

As an article from Vox recently confirmed, America may have local political institutions, but it increasingly has a nationalized politics–and for a number of reasons, that needs to change.

If you own a home and pay local taxes, have children in the public schools (or depend in any way on an educated population and/or workforce), live in a neighborhood where public safety is a concern (and that’s pretty much every neighborhood), you have a big stake in what happens locally–and as I posted a couple of days ago, those local races also matter more politically than most people realize.

So why is participation in local electoral politics so anemic?

The overwhelming majority of Americans consume disproportionately more news about national politics than about state and local politics. In one analysis, 99 percent of respondents in a typical media market never visited websites dedicated to local news. In a typical local election, fewer than one in five citizens bother to vote.

The last several decades have seen the standardization of parties across state lines. I recently saw a website in which a Republican running for  a local office described herself as  “pro life, pro gun, pro God.” (I’m sure God is grateful…) There was no explanation why any of this should matter–I’m pretty sure she was running for a position where she would have little or nothing to say about any of those issues. She was just signaling her Trumpist “brand.”

I’m sure this “homogenization” of partisans makes it easier for voters, who can just vote based on the R or D next to a candidate’s name. But when everyone running for office is a clone, the individual candidates themselves don’t much matter.

But the short-term convenience of standardized brands comes at a long-term cost for democratic accountability: If local candidates know that they won’t be evaluated on anything more than the D or R after their name, it changes how they think of their role. What can they do if their electoral fate depends almost entirely on national tides? As Hopkins writes, “Today’s vote choices are simply too nationalized for politicians to build much of a reputation separate from their party’s.”

The thing is, in the cities we inhabit, candidates and local institutions do matter–a lot!– and local efforts to support good candidates are much more productive than a few dollars sent to Beto O’Rourke, et al (although I hasten to say I plan to do both and you should too.)

And we have some first-rate, “non-clone” candidates running for local offices.

I became interested in our local prosecutor’s race, for example, because my youngest granddaughter–a high-school senior–has been interning in his Conviction Integrity unit. He established that process to review past convictions, to ensure that they had been dealt with properly–to catch errors or miscarriages of justice. When he took office, he also announced that he would focus the (necessarily limited) resources of the office on the prosecution of serious threats to public safety–and those serious threats didn’t include cases involving small amounts of pot.( He got a lot of flak for that from our local culture warriors, but I applauded.)

I recently had a wide-ranging discussion with that Prosecutor–his name is Ryan Mears–  and I was impressed not just with his very thoughtful and informed approach to criminal justice issues, but with his commitment to Indianapolis. That commitment is based on a belief that positive change at the local level is both necessary and  possible–and that improving our city matters.

I wholeheartedly agree.

Most of us are not in a position to affect national politics, but we definitely are able to make a difference locally. We can work to elect people who genuinely care about their communities–and , not so incidentally, to defeat the local Trump clones who just want to wage culture war and are clearly uninterested in doing the day-to-day grunt work needed to make our communities better places to live. I’ve begun meeting with other candidates for local and state office, and I intend to lend my (somewhat wizened) hand to selected campaigns.

if nothing else, participating in local races will allow me to actually do something–something that potentially matters.

It’s my way of fighting my feelings of political impotence. And maybe it will keep me from being so grumpy…