My favorite of the founding documents is the Declaration of Independence. I love it because it is, first and foremost, a declaration of human rights. Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . .” Not only is this a declaration of rights, but it states emphatically the purpose of government.
Many today think the government grants us our rights. Not so, according to our founders. Our rights are God-given, and governments exist to protect rights that preexist government. Rights and liberty are only meaningful and perpetual where there is sufficient public safety. To that end, state and local policymakers must make fighting crime a top priority.
But what do we mean by “public safety”? It sounds so self-defining, but in common parlance it is easily misused. Black’s Law Dictionary defines public safety as “[t]he welfare and protection of the general public, usu[ally] expressed as a governmental responsibility.”
The key phrase is “general public.” What I hear in my conversations surrounding public safety and criminal justice reform is very internalized. People talk about the protection of their own home, their own family, their own possessions. That’s understandable. I’m certainly concerned about the safety and well-being of my family and our property. But often missing is a concern about our larger community’s safety.
Do we consider marginalized populations when we think about public safety? According to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in encounters with the police. The same study shows that between 25 and 50 percent of those killed by police suffered from untreated severe mental illness. Those people are part of the public, and we’re not doing our part to keep them safe.
What about the safety of those affected by the incarceration of a family member? We already know the devastating effects of being raised without a father. According to a study by the Heritage Foundation, “children raised by single parents are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; be physically abused; smoke, drink, and use drugs; be aggressive; engage in violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior; have poor school performance; be expelled from school; and drop out of high school.”
Consider the fact that when we imprison a father who would otherwise provide some level of care for his family, we are perpetuating harm within that community. So even if we are primarily concerned with our own family and neighborhood, it still benefits all of us if our criminal justice system does everything possible to keep families together. Policy decisions surrounding public safety are more likely to be measured and reasonable when we are considering the safety of the public and not just our personal safety.