Liberals grapple with surging crime in D.C.

“It’s a slap on the wrist the first time and the third time and the 30th time, so it’s a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card,” Shelley Zimmerman, San Diego’s police chief, told Saslow. “We’re catching and releasing the same people over and over.”

Repeat offenders are now known among the police as “frequent fliers.” One shoplifter was caught while using a calculator to make sure his take did not break the $950 cutoff, Saslow reported.

Looking at the costs, benefits and unintended consequences of both hard-line and lenient policies, the question becomes: is there an effective and fair-minded approach to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment policy which would elicit consensus from the voting population?

The answer is probably no. Law enforcement is where the much broader failures of the system end up — their failure a result of a vicious combination: the loss of low-skill jobs; neighborhoods of concentrated poverty; the psychic damage inflicted by that poverty; and the long history of racial discrimination. The police, jails and courts are not equipped to address these failures, only to manage them. The institutions designed to maintain public safety will inevitably falter as long as the social order itself malfunctions, and as long as voters are sharply divided on these intensely felt issues. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to resolve these matters, either in the neighborhood itself or in the building that gives Capitol Hill its name.