800 words; 4 minutes to read.
Summary: US commentator Alec Karakatsanis debunks much media and political propaganda about crime.
The last few weeks have seen an onslaught of media stories and political comments on criminal justice across Canada. At the provincial and national level there are again calls for more restrictions on bail following the murder of a police officer in Ontario. At the local level, cities across Canada are embroiled in debates about increasing budgets for police, already usually the largest single budget item for most cities, at a time when other services are being cut.
These calls might make good political soundbites or bring more readers and viewer to various media, but they are quite inconsistent with the evidence, and in particular with a broader view of what actually hurts or supports public safety.
One of the people who best puts these issues in perspective is American commentator Alec Karakatsanis. Karakatsanis is a civil rights lawyer, social justice advocate, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, and founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington D.C. litigation nonprofit. On Twitter (@equalityAlec), on his Substack page and in occasional articles ( for example here), Karakatsanis brings a badly-needed fuller perspective, solidly grounded in evidence, to the fear-dominated discussion of criminal justice in the media.
Among the powerful points he makes: (comments in italics are drawn from his writings on Twitter and other sources)
Only some harms get counted as crimes.
Some wrongs get frequently reported as crimes while others, even though much more significant, are rarely if ever treated as crimes, and that these choices have a lot to do with who has power in society. For example preventable deaths from alcohol and smoking vastly outnumber deaths from the drugs that are considered criminal. “Law enforcement” only enforces *some* laws against *some* people.
It is illegal for poor people to wager over dice in the streets but legal for wealthy people to wager on the global price of wheat, the value of international currencies, or mortgage securities
Wage theft by employers isn’t in the crime statistics because it is almost never investigated by police, but [in the US] it costs low-wage workers an estimated $50 billion/year, dwarfing the cost of all reported robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and car thefts combined
Students at universities frequently violate underage drinking, drug, and assault laws without punishment while Black people who live down the street are surveilled, searched, arrested, beaten, jailed, and rendered homeless, jobless, and traumatized for similar behavior.
The same is true across public health, banking, manufacturing, employment, consumer protection, tax, and environment: things that cause greatest suffering and threats to public safety—many of which are crimes—receive a fraction of the attention as what police report as “crimes.”
Police and other actors manipulate crime data to suit their own purposes.
If all the crimes committed by police and jail/prison guards were counted, it would completely change the crime statistics that these “experts” regurgitate in the media to support police propaganda.
… almost all reporting about a “crime surge” uses low base rates so that percentage changes can appear high. An increase of 10 shootings to 12 shootings is reported as a 20% increase!
Another form of propaganda is the intentional decision to portray some kind of “expert consensus” by ignoring all the experts who disagree. One of most subtle ways to mislead readers is to say “experts say” but then only report one side of a hotly contested expert debate.
The full costs of enforcement proposals are not stated.
…people wanting give more to police don’t count the *costs*: many arrests; separated kids; lost jobs, homes, medical appointments; police assaults; and lifetime criminal records
Alternatives to more police or harsher sentences are rarely advanced.
…the idea of “soaring” crime after a few dozen more shootings without reporting how many people died from unstable housing, lack of access to healthcare, pollution, or malnutrition is how elites keep us focused on solutions of control and profit and not liberation.’
…violence is higher in countries that are more unequal, and violence is higher in U.S. states that are more unequal. Structural inequality kills
Media accounts shape public perceptions around crime, including ‘who and what we are afraid of’.
A thought experiment: Imagine if every day for the last 25 years every newspaper and tv station had urgent “breaking news” stories and graphics about the *thousands of deaths the night before* from air/water pollution, climate change, or poverty?
The media’s frenzy has led to emergency actions by many politicians, who are feeling intense political pressure to pass laws, assign thousands more police, increase police/prison budgets, and project an urgency they have *never* shown for wage theft.
Today in the U.S., corporations will steal $137 million in wages, the rich will steal $2.75 billion in taxes, and 1,300 humans will die from poverty, air pollution, and medical error. Who benefits from the news focusing on low-level crime instead?
Karakatsanis’s analysis is telling and merits much wider circulation in Canada as well given the similar debates and distortions taking place here.
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