Political grandstanding, ephebiphobia, the prison-industrial-complex and overall misconceptions of urban crime, race and drug policy has turned the inner-city, and to a slightly lesser degree suburban and rural areas, into a public policy nightmare.
The number of violent crimes, as defined by the FBI as “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault,” has steadily decreased over the past few decades. But as violent crimes decreased, the public perception of these crimes has increased. These misperceptions have led to public policy decisions that have exasperated the problem; leading to over crowed prisons, institutional abuse of power and criminalization of activities which are not criminal.
The contemporary “tough on crime” policies--mandatory sentencing, three strikes, truth-in-sentencing, quality of life policing, zero tolerance, and a range of other applications that result in longer and harsher penalties and the elimination of rehabilitation, restriction of parole and other programs—have led to high prison recidivism rates and the highest prison and parole population on the planet.
The roots of the “tough on crime” movement lay in the 1930s with the opposition in the south to anti-lynching laws. Those being lynched were considered criminals and anti-lynching activists were viewed to be supporting their criminality (Finley)
The attempt at linking crime to the Civil Rights movement continued throughout the 50s and 60s. Those in opposition to the protests and civil disobedience tactics of the Civil Rights movement characterized the supporters and members of the movement as criminals.
In an effort to sway public opinion against the civil rights movement, southern governors and law enforcement officials characterized its tactics as “criminal” and indicative of the breakdown of “law and order.”’ Calling for a crackdown on the “hoodlums,” “agitators,” “street mobs,” and “lawbreakers” who challenged segregation and African American disenfranchisement, these officials made rhetoric about crime a key component of political discourse on race relations. (Beckett and Sasson)
Politicians siding with the civil rights movement were labeled “weak on crime”. After President Kennedy showed willingness to push for civil rights legislation in 1963, conservatives, consisting of mostly Republicans and southern Democrats, criticized Kennedy for “rewarding lawbreakers”. (Beckett and Sasson)
in 1966 blamed civil rights leaders for the civil unrest and crime in the nation:
“…the deterioration of respect for the rule of law can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.
“The doctrine has become a contagious national disease, and its symptoms are manifest in more than just racial violence. We see them in the contempt among many of the young for the agents of the law-the police, We see them in the public burning of draft cards and the blocking of troop trains.
“We saw those symptoms when citizens in Chicago took to the streets to block public commerce to force the firing of a city official. We saw them on a campus of the University of California, where students brought a great university to its knees in protest of the policies of its administration.”
Richard Nixon blamed the race riots on “the deterioration of respect for the rule of law all across America.” But Nixon was not the first.
Two years earlier, Barry Goldwater decided to make crime a national issue even though the leading topics of the times were Vietnam War and Civil Rights:
“Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elderly.
“...security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary form and fundamental purpose of any government, and a government that cannot fulfill this purpose is one that cannot command the loyalty of its citizens. History shows us that nothing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets safe from bullies and marauders. We Republicans seek a government that attends to its fiscal climate, encouraging a free and a competitive economy and enforcing law and order.”
This “tough on crime” rhetoric appealed to those that opposed social and racial reforms; “anti-crime” to many voters meant “anti-protests and civil disobedience”. (Beckett and Sasson)
Civil Rights milestones like Rosa Parks, the “sit-ins” and the urban race riots were viewed by the “tough on crime” movement as people choosing which laws to follow and which to disregard; this disregard for unjust laws was used to link racial and social politics to criminal behavior.
Richard Nixon’s “If Mob Rule Takes Hold in the United States”:
“In this nation we raise our young to respect the law and public authority. What becomes of those lessons when teachers and leaders of the young themselves deliberately and publicly violate the laws?
“There is a crucial difference between lawful demonstration and protests on the one hand and illegal demonstrations and "civil disobedience" on the other.
“I think it is time the doctrine of civil disobedience was analyzed and rejected as not only wrong but potentially disastrous. “
In the years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, those in opposition used the racial subtext of crime to “redefine poverty as the consequence of individual failure and to recast welfare programs and their recipients in an unflattering light”; thereby linking race to crime and an individual’s personal choice and ethic, instead of socio-economic conditions. (Beckett and Sasson)
A person wasn’t committing a crime because of social and economic inequality but out of a personal choice to disregard the law.
Richard Nixon, while President, needed to act on the rhetoric that elected him to the White House, but was faced with the federal government’s lack of authority over local street crime. This was handled by coining the “War on Drugs” and weakening defendants’ rights through his Supreme Court appointments. (Beckett and Sasson)
After Nixon, the topic of crime was all but forgotten. Gerald Ford, nor, mentioned crime and therefore it was nearly non-existence in the national discourse. But made street crime a national issue by promising to fight crime by using federal law enforcement. He pressured the federal agencies to focus less on “white-collar” corporate crime and focus more on street crime instead.
Ronald Reagan showed he was “tough on crime” by continuing and increasing the “War on Drugs” and creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Bill Clinton did the same by giving the person in charge of the Office of National Drug Control Policy a cabinet position.
Politicians, with the help of the media, have made crime fighting a topic of significant through equating the “drug problem” to many of the street crimes and poverty; and used this link to combat social welfare programs and get reelected. The public assumed a person that started off as a drug user was just a few steps away from committing theft and murder. At the root of this “drug user to murderer” chain of criminality are welfare programs that encourage criminality by rewarding those that are lazy and unemployed by choice; exhibiting the same sort of moral bankruptcy evident in criminals who choose to be criminals.
The War on Drugs criminalized a social condition; it wasn’t drug dealers and traffickers that were targeted but also users. Instead of treating the American drug problem with rehabilitation and treatment, the “tough on crime” policies of The War on Drugs characterized the victims of addiction, socio-economic conditions and various other wide-ranging causes including sexual assault, abuse and PTSD, as criminals waiting to commit his or her next crime to finance their sickly drug habit; a habit they chose because of poor moral character and personal choice—and those reasons alone.
The second part of this article will be posted soon...
Part two is ready and can be read here: http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-new