Today’s movement for criminal justice reform and its attendant "defund the police" slogan contain nuanced calls to redirect public funds in ways that will both control crime and support downtrodden neighborhoods. But the language in those calls can easily be misinterpreted. Such poor messaging misleads both the movement’s members and the public in two important ways. First, it repeats many of the mistakes made by protest anthems of the past. For too many Americans enduring today’s all-too-real dystopia, calls to defund sound like calls to anarchy, not arguments for peaceable, sensible reforms. Second, defunding rhetoric contains an element of historical nostalgia, suggesting that a return to underpoliced neighborhoods will allow young men of color to flourish. But there are risks in discriminatory underpolicing as well as discriminatory overpolicing; the former led many liberal and African American activists in the 1960s and 70s to call for greater crime control and police presence, which had disastrous consequences still playing out today.
Activists for criminal justice reform must think both broadly and equitably. There is little doubt that overpolicing in some communities contributed to mass incarceration and widespread distrust of officers, which in turn limited officers’ ability to solve crimes in all neighborhoods. But calls to defund focus too narrowly on overpolicing alone. Ending any interaction between government investigators and people of color is not a panacea for the myriad injustices in our system of criminal adjudication. And the current rhetoric may cabin real change too narrowly, rather than pursuing the broader course of reforms needed to tear down the myriad mistakes of the past, brick by unjust brick."
Michael Gentithes, Rhetoric and Nostalgia in the Criminal Justice Reform Movement, 12 ConLawNOW 129 (2021).