Another election is at hand. On November 2, many Americans will head to the polls to elect state and federal representatives, governors and senators. We now have enough data to know that voting for candidates who promise to get tough on crime is a big mistake. That's political jingoism used to play on our fears, not because it is good public policy, but because it's good for getting themselves elected.
For forty years U.S. politicians have used the get-tough punitive approach to crime to convert complex problems into simple slogans. What they don't tell us is that these policies have little effect on the rate of violent crime, because they are primarily locking up nonviolent offenders. By the 1990s that was clear.
Between 1980 and 1993, nonviolent offenders accounted for eighty-four percent of the growth in state and federal prison populations. Nonetheless, politicians of both parties continue to run on a get tough on crime platform because it works. How did we get caught in this trap?
From 1950 to 1960, the number of televisions in U.S. homes grew from nineteen million to forty-seven million. As television took over as our main entertainment and source of information, the media, politicians, and pollsters became more savvy about how to use feelings, images, and thirty-second sound bites to shape how Americans vote. They discovered that our fear of crime is easily manipulated.
Richard Nixon was the first to combine television ads with a promise to get tough on crime, but others soon followed. Within a decade, the incarceration rate nationwide began to move upward, then the floods gates opened.
In the 1980s, politicians began to see thirty-second sound bites about crime as essential campaign tools. They crafted snappy messages, like "the war on drugs," "abolish parole," "truth in sentencing," "three strikes, you're out," "mandatory minimums," "zero tolerance," and "try juveniles as adults." These clever sound bites were translated into ever more punitive laws that have deeply impacted the system.
We have been on an incarceration binge ever since, as poignantly demonstrated in a graph prepared by the Justice Policy Institute called The Punishing Decade. (The graph is on the lower half of the page.) Getting tough on crime has become a crusade, used even when crime rates are falling.
Candidates who object to this wasteful path and propose better answers are labeled "soft on crime." In an environment of vengeance at any cost, it makes them an easy target. While tough on crime is an easy sell, the assertion that this excessively punitive approach is good public policy is refuted by a stream of reports, studies, books, and documentaries that have been warning us of an impending crisis for a long time.
Dr. Karl Menninger wrote The Crime of Punishment in 1966, even before the U.S. incarceration binge began. He tells us about two disturbed young men who had pointlessly killed a younger friend. In a compromise, life sentences were imposed instead of death. While incarcerated, one was killed by a fellow prisoner.
After the other man spent many years in prison, a number of people helped him secure parole. He worked in a hospital laboratory until he was fifty; then he went to college. After graduation, he served for four years as research associate and project director in the Department of Health.
Menninger asks, as a society, was this the right decision, or ". . . should we have held to the ancient, savage ritual of confinement and punishment, and continued his slow suffocation at public expense?" (The Crime of Punishment, 251-252)
So far, our society has favored the ancient, savage ritual of punitive justice for which we all pay a price. We are offered forced compliance, at the expense of meaningful, transformative change. We have acquiesced as the politicians continue to write the laws that sustain this failed policy, blind to its excessive costs.
It is time to get tough on politicians who promise to get tough on crime by getting rid of them. November 2nd can be the beginning of a new day.
Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 10-08-10