Saturday, August 22, 2015

I think the tide is really turning...

I don't plan to post in response to a lot of news stories---see our Facebook group for a really active stream of articles interesting to P&S folks---but this one really struck me. Yesterday, The New York Times published an article titled, "Joe Biden’s Role in ’90s Crime Law Could Haunt Any Presidential Bid."

The article was actually less powerful than the title implies, but reading those titular words caused an avalanche of images and stories to fall through my mind, including, of course, the arguments in Simon (2007) and Beckett (1997) about how important tough on crime is---now was---to politicians. Just think about some of the salient illustrations of "governing through crime" and "making crime pay":

  • the Bush v. Dukakis debate and the TV ads of Willy Horton
  • an image of President Bush Sr. talking about the drugs his personnel bought across from the White House
  • President Clinton flying down to Arkansas to preside over the execution of mentally retarded death row inmate Ricky Ray Rector
  • a flood of name-sake laws
  • (my own personal favorite) claims that Gov. Schwarzenegger (in the 2000s) had abandoned crime victims by endorsing rehabilitative policies for California's prisons

Then I was reminded of the various pieces of evidence we have seen over the last 5-10 years that suggest this thing that we have been studying really is coming to an end.

To provide some context, the 1994 federal Violent Crime Bill was a big step in the "war on crime" (for more, see Simon 2007, Governing Through Crime; Parenti 1999, Lockdown America; among others). The bill was a big package of goodies for the tough-on-crime politicians who supported it (almost everyone). One of the reasons I (and others) find this crime bill so significant is that it tied federal funding to state's adoption of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Together, this helped massively increase the incarceration rate, and fund prisons in which to put our newly sentenced convicts. (I also think of this as a nice example of coercive isomorphism---here's money to do what we want you to do.) It also created a federal three strikes law that some other states copied. Others will remember the federal 1994 Crime Bill because it removed Pell Grants---ways that prisoners were able to fund their education behind bars. It also criminalized gang activity and it introduced the "drug free zones" that Simon (2007) writes about as part of the "official graffiti" populating cities in the 1990s. It also directed millions of dollars to policing (especially to hire more officers). In many ways, this bill has helped further increase---and maintain---our really high incarceration rate.

The 1994 Crime Bill was considered a major victory for Bill Clinton, but it's also one that---apparently (as I didn't know this)---Biden has taken major credit, recently calling it the "1994 Biden Crime Bill"---as he was a major force behind it.

Now, a little more than 20 years after this law's passage, this law is apparently so unpopular that it might actually hurt Biden should he decide to run for president. (Apparently, he says mixed things about the bill, touting some of its positive effects but also wishing they had pushed back on some other features.) According to the New York Times article, Biden "will need to show his views have evolved." Specifically, Jeremy Haile, a main source in the article and a lawyer with the Sentencing Project, said,
“Any Democrat that is interested in gaining support among the current electorate, particularly the progressive civil rights communities, is going to have to say that previous tough-on-crime policies were a mistake.” 
Now, this is still pretty limited evidence for my question about "is the tide turning"---Haile and the article are mainly talking about Biden's ability to "win support from the young voters who were critical to President Obama’s election victories." Nevertheless, I do think it is a pretty interesting development.

It seems that a week doesn't go by without a major criminal justice issue isn't discussed in a major news outlet---or fake news outlet (e.g., Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). Things that we (scholars) figured out years or even decades ago are finally getting airtime on something other than NPR. This is also a time that we (again, scholars) might actually be able to make a bigger impact as people are finally ready to listen to what we have to say.

We are still a bit more than a year away from the 2016 election, but I imagine we'll see a lot more about criminal justice issues and the new politics of crime. Both personally (i.e., politically) and professionally (i.e., as a punishment geek), this is a very exciting time.

Postscript: 1994 

It seems like there are certain years that stand out in penal history. I tend to think of 1976/1977 as a major one for the beginning of the "severity revolution," the path towards mass incarceration, tough on crime mania, or whatever we want to call it. This is when California---the bellwether for penal rehabilitation and correctionalism---abandoned its indeterminate sentencing scheme (with bipartisan support) and declared that the purpose of prison was punishment. Now, some people are talking about 2008 as one of the turning points (Aviram 2015). As always, we recognize that that signs of change predate a watershed moment, but there are some years that just seem to stand out.

I think that 1994 was kind of a watershed year in many ways (I'm probably not the first to say this, so apologies to whoever did). This was the year that California's passed its (on steroids) version of the Three Strikes law passed (after having been rejected the previous year as a laughably bad idea), inspired by Polly Klaas's tragic kidnap-murder the year before. (The 1994 Violent Crime Bill also authored its federal version of the Three Strikes law.) This is the time when we see very clearly that governing through crime was a bipartisan effort, and no longer the sole domain of Dixiecrats or Republicans. 1996 is another major year, with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, but by then, a lot has happened.

1994 is around the time when we see most clearly a disconnect between rhetoric and reason. 1994 was the second year of declining crime rates and part way into the period of America's steepest increase in its incarceration rate (see Zimring 2001, "Imprisonment Rates and the New Politics of Criminal Punishment"). The crime rate had peaked in 1992, the same year as the LA riots/rebellion/protests following the Rodney King beating.

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