American liberalism is in a strong position to dominate cultural and political life in the United States for the near future, with Joe Biden in the White House and the Democratic Party in control of both houses of Congress. The cultural and media elites are, for now, united in their conviction that they have saved democracy and that the future is theirs. And yet, a serious challenge to this new liberal ascendancy could be coming, one similar in kind to the circumstances that knocked liberalism back on its heels in the 1960s—its inability to address or mitigate an increase in crime, particularly violent crime, and arrest the decline of civic order. In their eagerness to remake the criminal-justice system, defund police, and abolish prisons, today’s liberal leaders and activists appear to have forgotten the lessons of a previous era—and like their 1960s forebearers, prefer to denounce opponents of their agenda and forestall the difficult conversations about tradeoffs rather than confront the very real anxieties and fears many Americans are expressing about safety and disorder.
To understand the threat these ideas pose to the rosy Democratic future, we need to take a hard look at the overcast American past.
When crime began its decades-long upward spiral in the 1960s, liberalism’s leading proponents seemed unable or unwilling to address the problem. Some ignored it; others claimed the issue was not about crime but about the need for more expansive social-welfare programs; and still others actively denounced citizens’ demands for law and order as motivated by racism. At the same time, a series of decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court placed new restrictions on law enforcement and created new rights for criminal defendants in decisions such as Escobedo and Miranda, contributing to the sense among many Americans that the state and the dominant culture had become more concerned with protecting the rights of criminals than the safety and property of ordinary law-abiding Americans.
“Street crime” became not just a terrifying reality for urban dwellers in particular but a national political issue—a rallying cry for the right and the subject of rationalization by the left that provided yet another justification for expanding federal spending on social welfare. Culturally, the liberal elite doubled down on its defense of the accused and even glamorized violence and criminal behavior—a tendency that had grown so pronounced that by 1970, Tom Wolfe memorably was skewering it as “radical chic” in his portrait of the fundraiser Leonard Bernstein had hosted for the Black Panthers in his lavish New York City penthouse apartment.
For most Americans, the harsh realities of a decades-long crime wave could not be wished away over canapés. The homicide rate doubled between 1960 and 1980, and in general, all felonious crime, such as rape, assault, robbery, and theft, rose steadily. By the 1980s, in cities where crack (which radically lowered the financial cost of getting an aggressive high from cocaine) dominated the drug trade, the breakdown of social order played out daily with often deadly consequences. The government’s responsibility to keep its citizens safe was properly viewed as a promise betrayed—and Democrats at the local and national level paid the price at the polls for many years for their unwillingness to confront the issue. It wasn’t merely scared white folk who were concerned about rising crime; people of color who lived in poor neighborhoods were far more likely to be the victims of crime than anxious suburbanites and had long expressed concerns for their safety. As civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph said in 1964, “while there may be law and order without freedom, there can be no freedom without law and order.”
Politicians who failed to appear tough on crime were viewed as dangerously out of touch. Democrats learned this lesson during Michael Dukakis’s disastrous run for president in 1988, when he was the target of an ad paid for by a PAC that supported George H.W. Bush. The ad featured Willie Horton, who was serving a life sentence for brutally murdering a teenage gas-station clerk during a robbery (he stabbed Joseph Fournier 19 times before stuffing his body in a garbage can) and who was granted a weekend furlough by Massachusetts only to go on a crime spree, including armed robbery, assault, and rape, before being captured. Dukakis had supported the furlough program as governor of Massachusetts.
Dukakis was also famously an opponent of the death penalty, and it was significant that after his defeat, his party chose a candidate who actually left the campaign trail and flew home to Arkansas to be present in his home state for the execution of a death-row prisoner. By 1994, that Democratic president, Bill Clinton, joined with a Democratic senator named Joe Biden to lead a liberal charge for law and order with the 1994 Crime Bill. Biden himself claimed that the legislation would “lock Willie Horton up in jail.”
A quarter century later, Biden ran a presidential campaign in which he relied heavily on his record as an old Washington hand and for the most part refused to apologize when his record did not seem congruent with present-day wokeness. Except when it came to crime. Asked in October 2020 whether his support for the crime bill—which was more than merely support, it was his bill—had been a mistake, he replied, “Yes, it was.” Biden’s refusal to stake a proud claim to his most significant legislative accomplishment suggests just how profound the snapback has been—back to ideas that dominated liberal viewpoints toward crime and once did such damage to Democratic politicians.
And yet we’re not just experiencing echoes of the past. No: The leaders of today’s most fashionable perspectives on crime are advancing the arguments into an entirely new realm. A new generation of activist legislators, such as Representatives Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, are proposing sweeping changes to the criminal-justice system based not on practical realities but on the ideology of Critical Race Theory and its claims of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” They are not working on common-sense reforms of law enforcement and the criminal-justice system, many of which are needed in the wake of the three-decade crime drop in part because they were a product of a more dangerous time that required a more Draconian public response. Rather, they seek the abolition of what they call the “prison-industrial complex.” The problem, we are told, time and time again, isn’t antisocial, violent, criminal behavior, but a society that imprisons people for it.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring at the hands of a police officer prompted months of protests and demands for changes to law enforcement, as well as exponential growth in support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It presented an opportunity for a large-scale bipartisan debate about the criminal-justice system’s flaws. But the moment passed quickly because the left refused to seize it. For the most committed, radical activists, reform is a dodge. Abolition of law enforcement is their goal.
Throughout the spring and summer, when BLM demonstrations turned violent, the mainstream media downplayed them or deemed them “mostly peaceful,” and liberal activists, if they acknowledged the violence at all, justified obvious criminal behavior as necessary civil disobedience. When destructive riots broke out (as they did across the country, causing numerous deaths and billions of dollars in property damage), a BLM leader in Chicago called them appropriate “reparations” for slavery. Americans who watched their communities burn and witnessed the widespread social unrest—as well as month after month of invective directed at law enforcement—understandably questioned the credibility of the “mostly peaceful” narrative as well as the broader goals to “defund police” and “abolish prisons.” There is some evidence that they took those concerns to the polls in local and state elections in 2020, which led to a shrinking of the Democratic majority in the House and allowed many state legislatures to maintain Republican majorities.
It’s one thing to put a Black Lives Matter sign on your front lawn to express your sorrow at what you believe to be the disparate treatment of people of color by people in authority. It’s quite another to endorse the elimination of all law enforcement and its replacement by social workers. It is here where the radicalism of the liberal agenda for law enforcement once again runs up against the realities of criminal behavior—and where liberalism is poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.
A troubling rise in homicide rates across the country suggests that the transformation of law enforcement sought by BLM and its supporters has thus far had tragic consequences—with the greatest impact felt by the very population of vulnerable citizens, black Americans, that it claims to represent. As the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, “the local murder increases in 2020 were startling: 95% in Milwaukee, 78% in Louisville, Ky., 74% in Seattle, 72% in Minneapolis, 62% in New Orleans, and 58% in Atlanta.” The vast majority of victims of these homicides were black Americans, including many children, 55 of whom were killed in Chicago last year alone.
The message of the summer’s protests against police has been heard, and cops are acting on it. “Proactive police work is dead,” Lieutenant Bob Kroll of the Minneapolis Police Department told Mac Donald. Police stops in the city have fallen by half since the summer, a rational response by cops to the public hostility directed toward them when they do their jobs. In the name of pursuing racial justice, progressive mayors have disbanded special law-enforcement units that focused on the violent drug trade or getting illegal guns off the street, with a predictable increase in gun violence as the result.
These units, a form of proactive policing (as opposed to the reactive policing that exists when police officers merely respond to calls for service, such as 911 calls), are the reason crime remained low in high-risk communities. Rather than wait for crimes to occur and respond to them, special units, often made up of plainclothes officers, spend time in the communities they police, monitoring potentially criminal activity (such as drug and gun sales) to thwart criminal activities that would eventually lead to violence. When they work well, these units partner with community groups to defuse gang tensions before they spill over into the community in the form of wanton violence, for example. When elements of the public come to see proactive policing as too aggressive, which can be the ironic result of its success at lowering crime such that the practices begin to involve more and more people who are not involved in any way with unlawful activity, proactive policing can have unintended negative consequences.
It is a difficult balance to strike, but past experience suggests that eliminating proactive policing tactics entirely has the immediate effect of increasing gun violence in particular. When Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler responded to BLM activists’ demands this summer by eliminating the police department’s Gun Violence Reduction Team (activists claimed it was unfairly targeting black citizens), gun violence doubled. “I think the City of Portland had three or four murders up to I think the end of May, mid-June , and then we’d had like 48 since and that pace is really bad—that puts Portland on a pace to have 100 homicides a year or more, which would by far be a record that goes back 30-plus years,” a Portland police detective told a local news team. “That’s super concerning.” Other cities that eliminated their task forces saw similar spikes in gun violence.
While cops withdraw from proactive policing, the officials entrusted with prosecuting people for crimes have also embraced radical, progressive agendas in the name of racial justice, including trying to redefine what crime is. In cities across the county, elected progressive prosecutors now heed the calls of activists to “decriminalize” illegal actions in the name of social justice. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has been outspoken in his support of such decriminalization, and he refuses to prosecute thefts and other violations. A 2018 profile in the New York Times Magazine described him denouncing his own profession to law students, saying of prosecutors, “What they are involved with has elements of racism, classism, picking on the poor. What they do is connected not to the best but to the worst elements of policing.”
He’s not the only one to embrace such radical views. San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin refuses to prosecute what he calls “quality of life” crimes (including prostitution), while in Boston, DA Rachael Rollins initially ran for office on a platform promising not to prosecute many crimes, including selling drugs, trespassing, and resisting arrest. The willingness to tolerate these crimes is recast as promoting a more merciful, less punitive justice system—but in the eyes of law-abiding people, including the victims of crime, it is experienced as a dereliction of duty.
The trend is likely to continue. The Appeal, a progressive news site, noted that a new round of local elections for sheriffs, district attorneys, and mayors in 2021 will offer new opportunities to expand the progressive agenda on crime. “A string of local elections that hold the potential of upending the criminal legal system are on the horizon in the spring and fall,” Daniel Nichanian wrote, noting approvingly that liberal victories would “shrink the criminal legal system and law enforcement altogether—by not prosecuting certain behaviors at all or by closing jails, for example—rather than just making them work differently.”
But the way it’s working “differently” thus far is giving free rein to violence. As Rafael Mangual noted in the New York Times about the recent disturbing increase in violent crime in New York City: “Through Dec. 27, New York City’s 447 homicides and 1,518 shootings are respective year-to-date increases of 41 percent and 97.4 percent from 2019’s numbers. New Yorkers haven’t seen a year-over-year spike in homicides anywhere near this large since the early 1970s.”
In Washington, D.C., where homicide rates are also rising steeply and crimes like carjacking are up 141 percent in 2020 compared with 2019, the city council recently approved, over the vigorous objections of law enforcement, legislation to allow people convicted of violent crimes to petition for early release. The council even rejected proposed amendments to the new law that would have insisted judges consider the experience of the victims of crimes or the “nature of the underlying offense” when considering early release. Instead, the focus, as in so much of the new progressive approach to criminal justice, is on the experience and needs of the criminal. The new mood in cities is reflected by a recent addition to the streetscape in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, where crime has risen significantly since last year, including several daytime shootings and armed carjackings. There, you can find, affixed beneath city parking placards, permanent metal signs placed by activists that read “Prisons are modern slavery.”
WHEN THE Wall Street Journal asked a third-generation NYPD officer who recently retired after nearly 40 years on the force what had changed most since he was a rookie, he told the following story: A woman whose apartment had been broken into was asked to appear in court to testify about the crime after cops had found the perpetrator’s DNA at the scene of the crime and arrested him. She said she didn’t want to testify, and when the cop asked her why, she replied, “I don’t believe in mass incarceration.”
Incarceration isn’t something you do or don’t “believe in,” like the Tooth Fairy. Nor is it something one can abolish or wish away without consequence. And yet the agitprop of BLM and anti-incarceration activists has been so effective that such views are now part of the liberal mainstream, with disastrous consequences.
Ashish Prashar, a self-described “justice reform campaigner,” is typical of this thinking. Writing in Business Insider, he argues that even the language we use to talk about crime is offensive and unnecessarily stigmatizes offenders. “From replacing words like ‘convict’ or ‘criminal’ with phrases like ‘formerly incarcerated person’ or ‘person who served time,’ to replacing ‘gang’ with ‘friends’ or ‘schoolmates’ when a young person gets tangled up in trouble, this helps us accurately represent the relationships at play, remember our capacity for restorative work, and invites true justice,” he writes. He describes his own brief prison experience (he was part of a criminal gang in the UK that stole tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise): “In prison the guards take your personal belongings and issue you jeans, a shirt, a faded blue sweatshirt, and a clunky pair of black shoes. This is the start of a process designed not to rehabilitate you, but to crush you.”
He believes the problem with prison—and the criminal-justice system writ large—is that it fails to nurture the potential of those who break the law: “The people I went to prison with could have become executives, entrepreneurs, or elected officials if only the story told around their lives was honest or if someone had recognized their spark and nurtured it. The responsibility is with us to change the narrative by putting people before records.” In a post-election op-ed in USA Today, Prashar called on a newly elected Joe Biden to abolish prisons, although he conceded the process might take time: “We know that prisons won’t be bulldozed tomorrow, and the complete elimination of the justice system can’t be done in one fell swoop. But in the meantime, people need to continue to confront the criminal justice system and face the harm of incarceration.”
Rebranding the Crips and the Bloods as Friends and Schoolmates does nothing to diminish the havoc they wreak on communities, however, so another front in the decarceration battle involves muting the concerns of crime victims. In his Philadelphia office, Krasner appointed Movita Johnson-Harrell as the supervisor of victim services charged with aiding crime victims. Yet, as the New York Times reported, she appears more focused on excusing criminals than she is on helping victims. “I’ve always fought for kids on both sides of the gun,” she told the reporter. “Young people who cause crimes are often victims themselves, even victims of a broken society.” By drawing this moral equivalence between the perpetrators and the victims of crime, this “supervisor of victim services” effectively erases the experiences of crime victims and, correctly or not, contributes to the feeling of many citizens that liberal officials are more concerned about society’s unfairness to criminals than about seeking justice for those upon whom they prey.
Consider a Boston woman who was violently attacked while walking her dog in 2017 and left with a traumatic brain injury. DA Rollins, who was supposed to prosecute the crime, instead charged the attacker with a misdemeanor so he could avoid jail time. As the Boston Globe reported, Rollins wants to stop “a freight train moving toward mass incarceration of poor people and black and brown people.” When the paper reviewed Rollins’s record, they found that not only was she “dropping more cases than before, but some of the cases don’t seem ‘low-level’ at all, involving serious bodily injury, major thefts, and career criminals.”
In response to the criticism she received for letting the violent criminal who attacked the woman back on the street, Rollins doubled down on protecting the criminal. “I represent not just the victims but the defendant and the community,” she claimed. In fact, her job is to prosecute violent offenders to protect the community (public defenders represent the accused). But in the world of decarceration advocates, up is down, and down is up, and criminals, not crime victims, are always the vulnerable party.
Prison abolitionists often describe our criminal-justice system as an organization full of mistreated, nonviolent offenders wrongly incarcerated because of the color of their skin. In fact, although activists frequently cite the fact that rates of imprisonment in the U.S. are some of the highest in the world, the trend in incarceration is actually going down. Analyzing data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Pew Foundation found that “the U.S. incarceration rate fell in 2016 to its lowest level in 20 years.”
Decarceration advocates also wildly misrepresent the offenses committed by the prison population. As the criminologist John Pfaff has argued, prisons aren’t full of nonviolent drug offenders who many Americans could agree would be better off in diversionary programs. They are, quite simply, full of violent criminals: “In state prisons, which hold nearly 90 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners, almost 95 percent of inmates serving long sentences have been convicted of serious violence, not drugs; about half or more of such inmates were convicted of murder or manslaughter.” If you abolish prisons, what do you do with the violent among us? They will not disappear with the wave of the social-justice wand, or bend to the will of the social workers who progressives argue should replace police officers.
Nor can the disquieting racial disparities in the commission of violent crimes be wished away: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of all homicides in the U.S. are committed by black people, despite the fact that they make up only 13 percent of the population. Most of their victims are also black. FBI data also reveal that blacks disproportionately commit a range of other crimes, including manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
Progressive activists and BLM supporters who argue for the abolition of prisons and police because of their supposed disproportionate impact on black Americans cannot be taken seriously if they do not contend with these facts. The reason more black Americans come into contact with police in the first place is that cops are called to respond more often to the actions of dangerous people in minority neighborhoods. The law-abiding citizens in these neighborhoods know this; they are the ones who want a law-enforcement presence on their streets to deter violence.
Prison abolitionists refuse to countenance such facts, relying instead on revolutionary appeals. The progressive Rewire News Group explains that advocates of prison abolition “trace the origins of prisons to slavery and slave patrols” and “identify the criminal justice system as an anti-Black apparatus that works to other and disappear people from society.” As for lawbreakers, they argue, “crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum and is often a result of poverty and necessity, along with the steady decline of social services.” Indeed, abolitionists claim to “challenge the notions of ‘criminality’ and ‘innocence’” altogether.
Critical Resistance, an abolitionist group founded by one-time American Communist doyenne Angela Davis, supports the destruction of the “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) as part of a broader revolutionary worldview: “We think of the PIC as the system of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment that government, industry and their interests use as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.” In its view, the PIC “helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges.”
But when it comes to policy specifics, abolitionists are vague about what a world without prisons would look like. “From where we are now,” avers Critical Resistance, “sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages. It’s also about undoing the society we live in because the PIC both feeds on and maintains oppression and inequalities through punishment, violence, and controls millions of people.” The organization #8toabolition offers an eight-point approach that begins with defunding the police and includes “freeing people from jails and prisons.” But like many abolitionist prescriptions, its agenda assumes that violent crime will somehow disappear when cops and prisons no longer exist.
As one abolitionist revealed in Rewire News: “Abolitionists are all around you, working to create systems that address harm while also honoring the humanity of everyone. We are organizing to stop new jails from being built in our towns and to get cops out of our schools. We are talking to our loved ones about actual methods of accountability and practicing nurturing interpersonal relationships with each other.” How one holds a rapist accountable in the absence of law enforcement or nurtures an interpersonal relationship with someone who attempts to murder you is left unexplored.
There are practical solutions known to be effective at curbing violence. As former Department of Justice official Thomas Abt noted in a 2017 New York Times op-ed about effective ways to respond to rising homicide rates: “Civic, community and criminal justice leaders confront criminals with a simple message: ‘The killing must end now. If you let us, we will help you. If you make us, we will stop you.’ Those willing to turn away from violence are offered services and support, while those who will not are confronted with coordinated law enforcement action. A systematic review found that this strategy reduced crime and violence in nine out of 10 studies, with homicide reductions of 34 percent to 63 percent.”
When violence doesn’t stop, social order becomes what economists call an “intermittent asset.” Like perishable food, it expires when certain conditions are reached. When cops no longer proactively police dangerous neighborhoods, when progressive prosecutors refuse to prosecute criminals, and when activists demand the abolition of law enforcement, social order decays—most dramatically in the neighborhoods that are already the most vulnerable to disorder. For the people living in these neighborhoods, safety becomes a perishable good.
Beyond repeating the mistakes of the 1960s, the new progressive approach to crime and punishment also risks destroying some of the trans-partisan coalitions that have effected real criminal-justice reform in recent decades.
In our politically polarized environment, it’s easy to forget that criminal-justice reform has always had constituents on both the left and the right. The left’s reformers are progressive activists and organizations; the right’s are chiefly evangelicals, most notably former Nixon aide Charles Colson, whose Prison Fellowship was founded in 1974 as an evangelical outreach program to prisoners after his own stretch in jail. Libertarian-minded people on the right are also part of this coalition and have offered useful criticisms of the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug offenses, and “three strikes” sentencing laws that might now seem overly punitive.
The approach of these trans-partisan groups rejects both the radicalism of prison abolitionists and the embrace of the status quo among those on the right. They have focused their efforts on advocating treating prisoners with dignity without downplaying the severity of violent crime or lapsing into ideological claims about “systemic” racism or a “prison industrial complex.” Realistic about human nature, they offer a pragmatic approach to the need for incarceration for some individuals and the opportunity to offer better alternatives (such as parole and rehabilitation programs) for those who are not deemed a serious threat to their communities.
In the wake of the 1971 Attica prison riot, David J. Rothman described this approach in the pages of the Public Interest: “There is no magical plan for prison reform that can promise to reduce the number of criminals or the number of crimes.” But, he suggested, “if we scale down our expectations and rely upon such basic standards as human decency and economic costs, we will be in a better position to consider the merits of innovation and decarceration.”
Writing in 2016 about the ways in which conservatives and liberals collaborated on practical criminal-justice reform during the early decades of the 2000s, David Dagan and Steven Teles noted that these coalitions were effective largely because each side succeeded not by trying to bend the other side to its will, but by embracing specific common goals and being disciplined about pursuing them. Most important, they were careful not to allow debates about reform to lapse into ideological or partisan battles.
The debate has shifted in opposition to pragmatic collaboration. When South Carolina Senator Tim Scott proposed a police reform bill in the wake of George Floyd’s killing last year, he included many of the items on the left’s wish list: better data collection about use of force, banning chokeholds, and making lynching a hate crime, among others. Scott, a Republican, invited amendments from his Democratic colleagues to ensure compromise and support for the bill, and expressed hope for a wide-ranging, bipartisan piece of legislation. Instead, Democrats insulted Scott (Senator Richard Durbin called the proposed legislation “a token, half-hearted approach”) and immediately blocked debate on the bill, effectively killing it.
In its stead, progressive Democrats in the House are pursuing a more radical policy agenda, called the BREATHE Act. The brainchild of BLM activists, this wide-ranging proposal, as the Washington Post puts it, includes “calls for divesting federal resources from policing and incarceration, greatly expanding funding for low-income schools, creating a universal basic income for poor Americans, overhauling drug laws and ending mandatory minimum sentences, among other things.” (It also calls for the creation of a congressional committee to study reparations for slavery.) It has the support of Representatives Bush, Bowman, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib.
During his presidential campaign last summer, Biden boasted, “When I was vice president, violent crime fell 15 percent in this country…. The murder rate now is up 26 percent across the nation this year under Donald Trump.” Even Politifact, which goes out of its way to give Democratic politicians the benefit of the doubt, deemed Biden’s statement only “half true.” The statistics Biden cited to brag about his achievements as VP lumped together many different crimes; in fact, the murder rate in 2008 was the same as it was in 2016, with dramatic increases coming only in 2020, particularly in the wake of pandemic-related lockdowns and the George Floyd killing.
Biden wants credit for the results of decades of tough-on-crime policies (which he supported then) even as he denounces those same policies now as bulwarks of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy.” In announcing a set of executive orders during his first weeks in office that invoked Critical Race Theory jargon, the new president described the challenge as an existential one. “We’re in a battle for the soul of this nation,” he said, “and the truth is our soul will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to exist.” He went on to promise that his administration would “make strikes to end systemic racism, and every branch of the White House and the federal government will be part of that.”
The souls of Critical Race Theory folks might be troubled by “systemic racism” claims, but everyday Americans will be, and should be, far more bothered by imminent threats to their security and property. Biden has said next to nothing about those concerns since winning the election. Instead, he has embraced certain pet causes of the decarceration crowd, such as standing in opposition to privately owned prisons. And his adoption of Critical Race Theory rhetoric comes at a time when data suggest we are at risk of being swamped by a new wave of violent crime, not the fantastical cessation of criminal behavior envisioned by progressive activists. If Joe Biden continues to respond to the grim reality of rising crime with factitious and false rhetoric about why we need less law enforcement, the results may prove to be not only a disaster for the nation as a whole, but political suicide for his presidency and his party.
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