How much more data and evidence can we show that caging a person for 23 hours a day is inhumane?
Data makes a powerful case against the criminal justice status quo, but who's listening?
The mass of data the criminal justice system generates points overwhelmingly to the same conclusion: the system is not leading to greater safety, and is inflicting often tremendous harm on the people that it touches.
But efforts to make this point using numbers often fail to stick, and right now, with a pandemic-era national spike in crime, the reform movement appears back on its heels.
In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul is advocating a significant rollback of bail reforms passed in 2019—reforms which have already been weakened once before.
And this despite the fact the data on bail reforms couldn’t be clearer: there is no evidence connecting them to the spike in crime, and clear evidence that, when they were allowed to work as intended, they were keeping people out of jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail.
On this episode of New Thinking: has the reform movement oversold the promise of data-driven policy and evidence-based practice? And if not about numbers, what kind of stories should we be telling?
Discussing these questions with host Matt Watkins are two people working at the intersection of data and politics: Christina Greer is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University who focuses, in part, on urban politics and quantitative methods; and John Pfaff is a Professor of Law at Fordham and the author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.
The following is an annotated transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins.
Data is a primary tool used by people trying to reform the American criminal legal system.
And the data that that system generates points overwhelmingly to the same conclusion: that the system is not leading to greater safety, and that it’s inflicting often tremendous harm on the people that it touches.
But efforts to make this point using numbers often fail to stick. You’ll hear one of the guests on today’s show refer to Groundhog Day: the feeling that we keep having—and mostly losing—the same arguments, decade after decade.
Right now, with a national spike in crime, most likely brought on by the pandemic, the reform movement seems to be back on its heels.
In New York, just after we recorded this episode, the Governor confirmed a plan to push for a significant rollback of bail reforms passed in 2019, reforms which have already been weakened once before. And this despite the fact the data on the reforms couldn’t be clearer: there is no evidence connecting them to the crime spike, and clear evidence that, when they were allowed to work as intended, they were keeping people out of jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail.
So what is the role of data in influencing policy and the public’s perception of the justice system. And if not about data, what kind of stories should we be telling?
We have two great guests for today’s episode. Christina Greer is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University. She focuses, in part, on urban politics and quantitative methods. She’s a frequent and incisive media commentator.
And John Pfaff, also at Fordham, is a Professor of Law and a self-described “quant,” someone whose lens on the legal system is chiefly through numbers but who’s also a sharp political analyst. He was on the show in 2018 to talk about his book, Locked In, on the outsized power of prosecutors.
I started by asking them: how responsive is the system, and the people who operate it, to the evidence of what it's actually doing? John Pfaff speaks first.
John PFAFF: Data does work on micro changes. If you have a relatively progressive police chief who wants to do policing, staying in that silo, but do it better, we do know some things work better than others.
I think you see states and cities adopting policies that are better because there's data showing they're better. You see the rise of cognitive behavioral therapy because we know it has positive impacts from studies that have shown that. I think data can work there.
I think once we get to the bigger issue: should we upend this whole system all together and start from scratch? That's where it becomes much more an issue of politics. Even there, I think, where I see the data matter, and it's why I don't view my hundreds of thousands of hours on Twitter as a total waste of time—and total abnegation of my parenting responsibilities—is that if you convince journalists that there's another narrative out there, the anecdotes they start telling will shift.
And I think we have, not great, but somewhat seen a shift in how journalists talk anecdotally about the system, and that I think will have a bigger, long-run impact than “table 64 of some peer reviewed paper saying it's 7.2 not 9.6,” but it can shift the narrative in a longer run with some work.
Christina GREER: So many political scientists are wholly disinterested in politics. They're not interested in the actual people. So, when we talk about systems and institutions, I'm like, “well, people make up the systems, people make up the institutions, they actually make up the rules.” And it's like, “well, the law says...” I'm like, “someone made that law. Someone changed that law to either make it better or worse for a particular group of people.”
Talking to a returned citizen—and I like to use, instead of ex-con or ex-felon, it's “a returned citizen back to his or her community.”
And he said, one of the main reasons that he got himself together and really just made a concerted effort to never return to prison is because so many of the corrections guards would look at them and say, "You just bought me a new boat. You just bought me a new car. The more of you people from downstate who come up here—our restaurants and our hotels and motels—we rely on you Negros and Latinos to be here."
So, the racial and class implications of these quote unquote systems that are ruled by individuals that have real deep-seated, historical racist and classist foundations make it such that these conversations that we're having feel like Groundhog Day.
WATKINS: But given all of this—the historical and economic reasons you guys have both laid out, that underpin support for the status quo—do you worry then that the reform movement, or the left more generally, is putting too many eggs in the basket of data and evidence-based policymaking?
Take Measures for Justice, an organization that's really committed to criminal justice data. Their mission statement is good data and good use of it are the only way our criminal justice system can improve.
I don't want to just pick on them—where I work, the Center for Court Innovation, we've said similar things. But from a communication perspective, is that just too narrow a theory of change to take on what you guys are talking about?
PFAFF: I guess I'd say, I don't think we should just focus on them. I say as a quant, and someone who very much believes all of that, I don't think it was the quantitative people who got bail reform. The people in the streets pushing for it, who are going to those meetings in Albany and pushing their state reps, that are telling their state reps, “we’ll keep voting for you if you keep bail reform in place.”
I think they got us bail reform far more than the quant types did. And these things aren't independent: the quant types provide political cover for the journalists who provide cover for the politicians who are being lobbied by people below—it's a dynamic, complicated system.
GREER: You mean your ordered probits and ordered logits aren’t moving the needle?
PFAFF: I think they should, they really, really should! But I fear they are not.
WATKINS: Hey, what did I say about that technical speak, come on, now [laughter]!
GREER: But I think as John says, obviously journalists and politicians need to have some quantitative measure because they will be asked certain questions. But I think, one, we all work with data, a lot of folks don't know how to really read or interpret data. So, unless you have a journalist who can walk regular folks through the data, the data means nothing.
I definitely think that sometimes the lived experiences and the stories of individuals who are returning citizens, or who have been affected by Rikers or some jail system or probation efforts, they can actually help people see that there are real individuals behind these institutions.
When we hear from mothers or grandmothers or siblings who have essentially lost a loved one for 15 years—what must that feel like to essentially have someone who is just gone because you don't have the economic means to go visit them, to support them? Then when they come back, if you live in public housing, they might not be able to live with you. They're still gone.
Those stories as I've seen in my conversations have really affected journalists and how they think about the institutions and the systems and recognize that there are people who are in them and there are people who are upholding them.
WATKINS: On the bail reform point, I take, John, your point very well, that it's not quantitative labor that won the bail reform that it has across the country. And nor is it data that is protecting the reforms once they get made. The data is very strong that bail reform is working, that people who get out, only 2% or less, that's a tiny percentage—well, you're going to question my stats, which is your job—are re-arrested for a violent felony.
So, go ahead and question them, but we're still talking about a very small number. The data's clear the reforms are working, but that's not the way it's playing out in the public square at all, it seems to me.
PFAFF: First with that 2% number—and I say this as someone who's used that 2% number and now has come to realize that 2% number is wrong—the 2% number comes from this website by the CJA that, you probably know the acronym better than I do-
WATKINS: Criminal Justice Agency.
PFAFF: Thank you. And there comes from people out on parole in a given month, people out on bail, on pretrial release in a given month and the number of arrests made that month. It's a conflation of what we call stock and flow. If you're out on pretrial release for seven months, you show up in seven of those months—each month you're out. But the arrest happens in a given month. It's not a great match and the 2%, actually, is probably too low.
And I think this is one of the problems we have with data also in the criminal legal space, is that our data is in such shambles and is so disastrous that it’s hard to ever know actually what's going on in the first place and it's easy to get things wrong.
WATKINS: But I mean, we can say with some database certainty that bail reform is not behind the spike in shootings, the spike in murders that has taken place in jurisdictions across the country. As opposed to the opponents of bail reform who are saying that, we can say: the data shows, that's not likely to be the case.
PFAFF: States that did not have bail reforms, states that did have bail reform all saw spikes in homicides and shootings. Cities with progressive DAs, non-progressive DAs, tough-on-crime cops, less tough-on-crime cops, but still tough on crime: spikes in homicides. So, the idea that we can pin it all back to bail reform is going be almost impossible to be true. Is there some connection there? It's not impossible to say that yet. I'd be surprised if there's any real effect.
And again, you have to balance all those effects against all the Kalief Browders as well, and we never do that. The fundamental failing of all of our cost-benefit analyses every single time is that we compare, like, the expected crime reduction savings from someone being in prison against the fiscal cost of that person being in prison.
We spend a dollar on prisons, we get $1.13 less in crime. That means that Kalief Browder, George Floyd, they aren't in those equations at all. The stress Black parents feel telling their kids “don't talk to a cop,” not in that equation at all. The fact that young men say they feel like they're being sexually assaulted when they get frisked because the cops literally grab their genitals as they frisk them, not in our cost-benefit at all.
All of our cost-benefit equations are fundamentally flawed. So, even if we show some small connection between bail reform and any sort of violence, we have to balance that against all those toxic, lethal, life-shortening events that Rikers and other prisons do on the flipside. And we have no data on that.
WATKINS: This gets into another potential weakness of focusing too much on data is that we have a fundamental failure of empathy from the wider American public for people who are in jails and prisons. There's a very clear narrative in American history that jails and prisons are going to make us more safe, and that they protect us from the bad people who are in them, and we are the good people who are outside of them. That’s a very powerful narrative, and it's got economic origins behind it too, as Christina has been saying.
But we now know there are data, there are increasing studies that show that's most likely not the case, that jails and prisons are not making us safer. They're disrupting people's lives, it's huge trauma. It's making it more likely that when people get out, as almost everyone eventually does, they're going to get rearrested, making us all less safe along with all the terrible effects on people that John was just talking about. But it's such an intuitive narrative that jails equal safety, how do we take that on?
GREER: But all the measures show that is just not true!
WATKINS: It just feels like people aren't hearing those measures. It doesn't have the same emotional valance.
GREER: But it's the same way that we consistently ignore data as a nation. Most people believe in a woman's right to choose in this country, yet and still, look at what's happening in Roe v. Wade. Most people believed in marriage equity years before we ever saw it in the states. The institutions are always so far behind public opinion and public sentiment in this nation.
But I think John's point can't be underscored enough: the number of people who are traumatized when they were in jail and/or prison, whether it's from guards or other inmates, who they themselves are traumatized too, and now they're going back into their communities, carrying that trauma and that anger and that fear.
So, we have to understand that there all these preexisting forces that have been in certain communities that are just hyper-surveilled and over-abused and over-traumatized by a series of failed institutions in this nation.
I'm not making excuses for people who commit crime by any stretch of the imagination. But the deck that certain people have looks nothing like the deck that we have. And we're making it despite that.
My sister's a medical physician and we talk about health outcomes all the time. We wonder why even Black professors, why do Black professors die so early? This is a kick-ass profession! We should be 95-years-old and Black women in the profession, barely making it to their mid-60s.
We're trying to figure this out as Black women, across disciplines. And because we're internalizing all this stuff! I never grew up in the projects, I never grew up in a poor family, but I feel intrinsically connected to people who look like me, who are being abused.
Because at the end of the day, Black people in America are just under a gun that this country has never—the anti-Blackness of this country has never, ever gone away. It's from the epic origins and it's still here, and we see it in every single institution and system that we come in front of.
WATKINS: I think I've seen that health effect on Black Americans referred to as “weathering,” which seems like a good metaphor because it is like the weather.
WATKINS: Sunny or rainy, the weather is there.
PFAFF: Along those lines, I think it's worth noting that, we can get into a big debate on who is, or who is not a progressive D.A. But if you look at who our progressive D.A.s are—where actually our progressive D.A.s are: Brooklyn, San Francisco, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia. What those cities all have in common is that they don't have suburbs. We elect progressive D.A.s in places where white people have the least amount of voting power.
It's because for the residents of Philadelphia… One of the amazing things about the electoral map from Larry Krasner's primary campaign: if you overlay the districts in Philadelphia that Krasner won and where shootings in Philadelphia took place, Krasner wins all the districts that have the shootings and loses the ones that don't.
The people experiencing violence rejected tough-on-crime, because for them it's not about data. They see their cousin, their brother, their uncle, their son, their nephew get locked up needlessly for too long, for reasons that don't matter, come back worse than before, nothing's made better. They themselves are more likely victims and feel how this process doesn't actually make them feel any better, if not, makes them feel worse. And they consistently choose more progressive D.A.s.
When the white voters, and suburban voters, and this is much more of an abstract concept, get into the picture, they're much more swayed by the anecdote and the fear and things crumble.
And so again: what does data do? I'm increasingly convinced that data can't do that much. What we have to do is cut out the people who don't experience this on a day-to-day basis, because you need experience to understand the tradeoffs, they live the tradeoffs in a way that the suburbanites just don't. And for them again, it's much more of an abstraction. They don't have that empathy. The empathy gap is huge and vast and perhaps empirically with data insurmountable.
GREER: Well, that's how I'm explaining to so many people who are like, “how did Eric Adams become mayor?” And it's like, he knows how to talk about crime to various groups of New Yorkers.
He was very clear to certain communities, “no, we're not going to decrease the police on subways. We need more police.” That's something where, let's be clear, that's the dirty little secret: progressives like police too. They like them in their neighborhoods, because they don't see police as a threat.
But I think Eric Adams can talk to New Yorkers and he's like, “you like safety.” And as a former cop himself for over two decades, he equates policing with safety. But also he's able to... This is the magical wand of Eric Adams: he also talks about education and putting money into other services—whether he'll do it is a different podcast—but a holistic conversation. But the root cause of that conversation is: but we're still not going to get rid of police while we're trying to figure out all these other issues.
WATKINS: Adams is a very effective communicator, and he tells stories very well, in ways that data often doesn't manage to do. After those two NYPD officers were shot in Harlem, and that's a complex and deeply tragic story, Eric Adams came out with this statement, “it's our city against the killers.”
And that really makes the whole city a victim, which is a very powerful notion. And it creates a very powerful narrative and a very powerful lesson that he wants people to take from it. And I just don't know how data can punch through against that kind of communication.
PFAFF: I think it's even more systemic than that though. Because I don't want to give… Let's not give Adams too much credit here as a politician, because we're seeing the same pattern all across the country.
San Francisco: progressive D.A., very conservative mayor; Chicago: Lori Lightfoot versus Kim Foxx. You're seeing it in New Orleans, you're seeing it in Los Angeles. Most major cities you're seeing tougher-on-crime mayors and the same cities have very progressive D.A.s, even though in many of those places they’re being elected by the same people.
And I think it does reflect a much deeper ambivalence about policing and about prisons. We talk about criminal legal reform like this bipartisan consensus. It's been for a very narrow aspect: just for prisons and just maybe for nonviolent and drug offenses—not even violence is really on the map at all.
You get to policing, people get a lot more confused—we just really offer any other options. Everyone wants something else. But when you ask the question—do you want more policing—the subtext to that question is: policing or crime; those are your choices. And obviously, you're going to choose policing.
It's a tough question to disentangle what's going on, but it has led to mayors who are systematically more tough than the D.A.s, in a way that's not just a random, good politician, there’s something systemic about the way things are fracturing, even amongst Democrats.
GREER: I'm not trying to give Eric Adams too much credit, but I will say this: Black voters are incredibly complex voters. Because we have to not only factor in our choices, we have to understand white people and their capacity for change. Ask Bernie Sanders, who didn't bother to go to South Carolina, but that's a different podcast. So we have-
WATKINS: That’s a lot of different podcasts I gotta make at this point!
GREER: Come on, Matt! I'm keeping you busy!
So, we have to factor in our wants and needs and also white people while we go to the polls.
But I do think that there's a real binary that is set up where it's either you want police or you want crime. And that is a false binary conversation that we're having. And so, Matt, as you ask us about the data—the data, a lot of people don't care about the data because they care about their lived experience. And the lived experience doesn't matter if you're one of the 10% that's a victim of a crime or the 90% that has ever experienced a crime.
WATKINS: Actually, I want to pick up on that lived experience point and it goes back to something John was saying about the distinction that's made between nonviolent and violent offenses. And that there's maybe a fragile consensus, reform consensus, around nonviolent stuff, but that tends to stop the moment violence becomes part of the conversation.
Yet you both know if this country doesn't deal with people with violent charges… You're never going to make a significant dent in mass incarceration, unless you start giving people much shorter sentences and putting fewer people in prison to begin with. But in that conversation, when violence has this strong, emotional power, that's where it feels making an argument from data is just easily overwhelmed.
PFAFF: I think people have this vision that violent crimes go to prison. That's just what happens. I try to point out, look, about 50% of all assaults are reported, about 30% of all rapes are reported to the police. Already a huge chunk never even show up on the police radar. Of those assaults that are reported, about half of those make an arrest, for rapes it’s about 30%. So, now we're down to only about 25% of all assaults produce an arrest. And about 10% of all rapes produce an arrest.
Now we drop about a third of those in the prosecution process, a quarter of those. So now we're down to 12% of all assaults, and about 5% of all rapes are even making it to the prosecution level. We have this vision that if we don't send people for violence to prison, everything falls apart. And, we have to stress: we have this vast system with actually very few percent of those people in prison.
It's still far too many, and the harms are vast and we should have far fewer, but it's not like somehow, we've got all the people causing harms locked up. And that's where our fairly safe, as things go, world has been for a while now. We get there, the informal controls are far greater and they’ve been doing far greater work all along. Why don't we try building those up?
WATKINS: Do you have thoughts Christina, about how we can advance this goal of keeping people with more serious crimes, keeping them out of prison, in this current political climate?
GREER: Yeah. I think it's really hard to have these conversations and really move the needle when people are in the midst of feeling as though crime is spiking, whether it's real or perceived. All it takes is one example, because whenever you ask someone, who's like, “it's so dangerous now!” It's like, well, “how is it dangerous for you?” That's always my question.
It's like, “well, my husband's brother's cousin's second cousin, next door neighbor's boyfriend's sister's brother, they were mugged.” We're like seven people removed from someone you allegedly know. And so, I put that in the perception piece.
And of course, when I say these things, I get lots of hate mail where it's like, “you're not a victim of violent crime and just wait until you are a victim and then you'll be sympathetic.” It's like, I'm not not being sympathetic. It's just, I think that there is some hysteria that a lot of folks have where they think that the crime is much closer to them.
And it's like, and the people who actually are living under crime have been living under it for so long, actually. There's spikes in their neighborhood, but those were already high-crime neighborhoods. It's just these one-off instances that happen to people where crime “shouldn't happen to.”
Because that's the thing, there's been high crime in all of these cities, relatively speaking. No, I'm not talking about 90s numbers, but we still have a few hundred murders every year in New York City. It's not nothing, but it's been in the same neighborhoods. So those people are still living under the threat of it.
I think the crux of what I'm always asking is: in a country that has a longstanding history of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, patriarchy and capitalism—thank you, bell hooks, for breaking that all down for us—how do we look at these problems without making sure that those four legs of the table are always in our view?
PFAFF: And I would add to all that, I think it's important to appreciate, especially these days how much criminal legal policy is driven, not by crime, but by abstract senses of fear.
WATKINS: Abstract and sometimes ginned up. I mean, there's so much media coverage, that then feeds perceptions, that then feeds polling.
PFAFF: But this is even more abstract than that. Criminal legal policy is in an emotional policy area. And we tend to respond to our big emotional shifts. We're terrified of terrorism, so everyone goes to prison. The financial system is falling apart, so everybody comes out because you can't afford any of this anymore.
And none of it is cold and calculating, it's all deeply emotional, which means I think the data people, we're on the margins trying to make sure that when things fall apart, one or the other, the narrative doesn't shift too far out of bounds. We're trying to put some limits on what journalists and things will say, but I think it's important to always understand how purely emotional so much of this policy is.
WATKINS: It feels like we're in a moment right now where the reform movement is cowed and back on its heel somewhat. You've got President Biden talking about defund the police in this State of the Union, even though defund the police never really made it into any kind of meaningful policy.
So, to the extent there is a—I don't even want to say resurgence of the status quo, because I'm not sure it retreated much—but in terms of understanding the waves that take place: is it partly a backlash against the temporary openness that happened after the murder of George Floyd, or is it the bail reform in New York, which was actually a significant victory in some ways. Is it a backlash moment in that sense, Christina, do you think?
GREER: I think so. And I think as I said before, a lot of people like these reforms in theory, until they actually have to be confronted with a slight discomfort.
WATKINS: Which they are several times a week on the cover of The New York Post.
GREER: Right, and The Post, you would think that it’s apocalyptic! But all it takes, though, is one mentally challenged person on the subway and it's like, “this city is so unsafe!” And it's like, well, yes, there are definitely unhoused individuals, many of whom or some of whom have mental health challenges.
And our shelter system is off, our homeless services are off. If we were looking at this as a holistic problem, we could solve a lot of this stuff because we could head things off at the pass and actually get people good education and good housing stock and all the things.
But we haven't decided to invest in that. We've actually decided to invest in the backend, which is Rikers and prisons. So, I do think that some of this pendulum swing from all this activism in the summer of 2020 where you saw a lot of Black folks were like, “okay sure, have your little black box or whatever on Instagram” and all of a sudden we get Juneteenth. But no, we weren't asking for Juneteenth!
First of all, we were asking for equity, decency, and peace and justice, but no, give us a random holiday that everybody gets to have. Okay, sure. Again, completely missing the point! So it's like: let's just make sure Black people don't riot. So, here's a holiday that nobody asked for, without ever having substantive change!
And so, I think we've gone from June 2020 with folks in the street to now, March 2022, where folks are feeling ever so slightly uncomfortable, and all those calls for defunding the police are now a lot more quiet. And a lot of folks are like, “well, it's not the worst thing.”
And so, I think we, the people on the left—who I tend not to trust, because I am on the left—I think that it's a lot of fair-weather friendships, and it's okay if things change as long as nothing in their world changes ever.
So, I don't know, I think my patience level, it's just, it’s just low because I knew that all that quote unquote support, which I put in very loose quotes, in June of 2020 was not going to be longstanding, especially when I knew that crime was going to spike because unemployment is high. And all the data shows that when people are feeling desperate economically, they do desperate things. That's just what happens.
They start stealing packages, they start running up on folks and taking phones, because we're all walking around with $500 phones. And so, all of these expensive things that we have on our person, they're liable to get got. And that's just what people do to survive. And I'm not saying it's right, but it's the reality of the situation. And I knew that a lot of that support in 2020 would be short-lived.
WATKINS: John, is there a way to use data to help the uncomfortable, inconstant justice reform supporter at this moment? Or is it really, we have to wait out the panic?
PFAFF: Yeah, I think it helps them until the moment they confront something that makes them uncomfortable. They're okay with it in the abstract, but when they see something happen or read about or feel too close to home, then the data has a hard time penetrating.
I think it is much more about: how can data shape the people who shape the longer run narrative. And I will say one of those rare glimmers of hope that I cling to desperately just to get through the day: so, there was the recent case of the person with the mental health problem who shoved the woman onto the train tracks and killed her. This happens every year, but this one got attention for a confluence of reasons.
WATKINS: In New York City.
PFAFF: In New York City. And so, we immediately see a demand for more policing to make sure it doesn't happen, ignoring the fact there were two officers on the platform where she got shoved—the cops were literally right there, and you can't do anything about this. But you saw this immediate demand for more policing, make sure this doesn't happen. While a bunch of certain more Europe-looking people are saying, "Look, every other country in the world with a subway system has big glass doors in front of the platform."
No one can jump in front of the tracks: you can't get shoved, you can't jump, you can't get pushed. And I tweeted about that and got mocked for being some European socialist who doesn't understand how things work. But now we’re not seeing the police hired but we are seeing the MTA promise to roll this out in three stations—because the MTA does everything at 10 times the budget Europe does and many years slower.
But it was the kind of thing where there's this immediate call for policing and the policy response wasn't the cops. It was something else. And I think it's a sign of the slow shift in the overall narrative that happens where there is, more often than before, a slight pause before the immediate jump to policing by people who create the narrative, which is, I think, where any long-run change that's going to happen has to come from.
WATKINS: To try to wrap up here, I'm really curious to hear what both of you have to think about this: whether you are worried at all that this evidence-based movement that you hear so much about, it's such a buzzword amongst the reform community, has the evidence-based, data-driven conversation hijacked the reform movement, in a sense? And made it that we're too afraid to just lead with our values and say: "Look, caging people is bad, regardless of what the data tells us”?
GREER: We talk about this country as a lofty country, but when have we ever lived up to our values? When? This is the closest we've ever been and we're in dire straits!
This is the best time to be a Black person in this country! Think about that! So, if that's the case, you have to ask yourself: what have been the values of our nation? We have always locked people up: in internment camps sponsored by FDR—did great things in World War II, also at the same time put Japanese, Italian, and German folks in internment camps.
I mean, how much more data and evidence can we show that caging a person for 23 hours a day is inhumane? So, I think that values question is always hard for me, because to me, this country has very little values.
And this is why I read Mark Twain all the time, because I felt like he gets it. And he gets it in a particular time period and he was always broke, so he had to write for many audiences. So, I read him a lot to help me understand that particular moment in time where that was the best moment, that Reconstruction era. And then we saw what happened after that.
PFAFF: Everything Christina says is why I don't let my students ever use the word “we” in class. You need to tell me who we are and who us is, because there is no “we” and “us.”
I think there's something similar when you say: “what is its goal,” for the reform movement—there isn't an “it” there. Even the word evidence-based is tricky and normatively laden and contestable. You can run a randomized trial: policing tactics or bail reform or something like that. That's evidence-based and that gets the gold star and that limits the kind of questions you can ask.
And so yes, do the people who put a tremendous emphasis on evidence-based, and I am someone who falls in that category sometimes, blind themselves to bigger questions? Yeah. But for those narrow questions that lend themselves to evidence-based experimentation, I think it is useful. I think when your goal becomes bigger—upending that silo all together—then I think data matters less.
That's the realm of pure politics and politics has never been a realm where data matters. And the politics get really complicated. On the one hand, using these evidence-based approaches can make the institutions we have more humane, more effective. It doesn't make them effective or humane, it makes them better than they currently are, but that might run the risk of legitimating them in the longer run.
And so, if you legitimate them in the longer run, because they're better than they were before, then you get stuck with something that sucks for a really long period of time. If you don't use your data to get them better, then the people who are in prisons now suffer more.
And how do you navigate a system where the data makes a terrible thing less terrible? But there are people in that terrible thing now for whom we should be careful not to make things more terrible, while trying to make sure there's fewer people in that in the long run. And it leaves my head spinning as to what you do here.
WATKINS: In terms of narrative, it can feel the right has this very simple, if factitious, story to tell when it comes to criminal justice: it's an eye for an eye. And that the story on the left is more complicated. Christina has made the point about all the legs that have created this terrible chair of classism and racism… Does it feel like the material on the left is just harder to demagogue?
GREER: Well, I think the right is just really straightforward. All of their critiques are racist and classist. So, if they can create a boogieman, it's just, “these Negros and Latinos and immigrants are coming to get you.” And they really don't care about poor whites—never have—and LBJ broke that down for us. Even poor whites don't want to pay attention to the fact that they're poor whites. And so, as LBJ says, if you can convince the poorest white man he's better than the Negro, then you can pick his pockets all day long.
And so, Republicans have mastered that and they have shown that they are not above just flat-out lying, period. So, they will say that “there's so much crime.” I mean, you remember MS-13, Donald Trump essentially made it seem that Long Island was under siege with all these immigrants from the border coming in caravans—which was not true, period.
And then we have to ask, “well, if you would fund proper immigration reform, or education, or all of the things that we know make communities safe,” because there are lots of safe communities in this country, “if you would just do that for everyone else, then maybe we wouldn't have these problems.” That's not advantageous politically. You have to have a boogieman and a strawman, and Republicans have mastered that seamlessly over time.
PFAFF: I think also when it comes to crime, Republicans have the benefit of engaging in cost-benefit discussions where they don't have to talk about the costs and the Democrats do. It's a lot easier to have a cost-benefit conversation when you only talk about the benefits.
And to the extent Republicans aren't trying to get the votes of Black people in general, and certainly Black people who live in cities, they can tell their white suburbanites: “prison makes you safer”—period, easy narrative, done. Because the costs of that are borne by people who aren't going to vote for them anyway.
Democrats who are trying to get the votes oftentimes of the more urban populations, Black voters to get them motivated to get out to vote, they have to tell you the cost and the benefits. “We want to get crime down, but we want to get crime down in a way that doesn't hurt the community so much.” They are compelled to tell a more complicated story because their politicians are operating in the environment where those costs and benefits are borne.
I'm sure you can find other issues where Democrats can pull the entire benefit thing and Republicans get tied up in some weird “we're dealing with benefit and costs” knots. So, there's a structural explanation for why their narrative is easier. Because they get to ignore the cost part because they don't feel the costs. And that automatically gives any one an upper hand when they can ignore 50% of a cost-benefit analysis.
WATKINS: Well guys, I really should let you go. I just want to thank you guys both so much for participating in this. It's just been a really great and illuminating conversation. Christina, John, thank you so much.
GREER: Thanks for having us.
PFAFF: Thanks so much.