US war on crime has nothing to do with crime
The land of the unfree
The United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other nation. It has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. If you count everyone ensnared in the corrections system – on probation or parole – millions of Americans (one of every 31) are anything but free in the land of liberty (1).
“Incarceration is a rich country’s hobby,” says Scott Henson, a Texan journalist and political consultant who has monitored America’s addiction to imprisonment for years and thinks it a pastime of impractical and frivolous consequences. Crime and punishment are disconnected. As funding has increased, more prisons have been built, more of the usual suspects – drug users, dealers, and petty gangsters – have been wrangled into newly constructed penitentiaries, and more warders hired to man the guard towers.
Crime seems to have fluctuated of its own free will, unaffected by the billions of dollars thrown at it and the policies written to combat it. Although crime declined throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, incarceration rates climbed dramatically, even among the young. Meanwhile, the state of New York saw a dramatic decrease in violent crime as its prison population dropped (2).
State budgets are being leached by rising bills for ever-expanding penal systems – nearing a cumulative $50bn this year – and politicians are exacting cuts on education, healthcare and other social services to make up the difference. Between 1988 and 2008, spending on the prison system grew from four to 30 times the budget for public housing (3).
There is a current of racial inequality and strife that runs through America’s history. From slavery to reconstruction, urban migration to ghettos, one of the starkest examples of the lingering racial divide is the over-representation of people of colour in the prison system.
While distinct in some ways and eerily parallel in others, the racial and criminal narratives of America became particularly intertwined at a time of cultural conflagration. In the 1960s America mutinied. Long-oppressed racial groups – blacks, Latinos and the indigenous people – demanded civil rights, students called for an end to the war in Vietnam, women challenged the assumptions of patriarchy, and environmentalists mobilised against ecological destruction. America was in open revolt against its own culture and Washington responded one of the few ways it knew: it declared a war.
‘Tough on crime’
With many citizens fearful of the uncertain future, politicians devised policies to win the war on crime and the war on drugs. Writing to Dwight Eisenhower in 1968, Richard Nixon expressed confidence in his “tough on crime” platform: “I have found great audience response to this law and order theme in all parts of the country, including areas like New Hampshire where there is virtually no race problem and relatively little crime.” (4)
The war on crime has nothing to do with crime. As Dr Bruce Western, professor of sociology at Harvard University, points out: “Crime rates themselves may not have driven the prison boom but long-standing fears about crime and other social anxieties may form the backdrop for the growth in imprisonment.” (5) While violent crime did drop remarkably in the 1990s, the role “tough on crime” policies played is debatable. Instead, changes in local policing tactics and economic growth should be credited.
Incarceration rates rose steadily throughout this period thanks to the war on drugs, which received more and more funds from federal authorities. In the 1960s drugs were beginning to emerge in the counter culture and working-class neighbourhoods, and their burgeoning popularity and expanding market were seen as a sign of lawlessness. Lawmakers decided to take the war to the streets and create heavy-handed penalties for even petty possession. These laws remain on the books and are enforced by a wide range of agencies, bureaus and police departments, all receiving increasing sums from the federal government. “Drugs draw many into the system who do not actively contribute to crime” explains Western. He says the effect incarceration had on crime rates was small. The government has wasted billions on treating as a crime wave what is really a pressing public health issue.
Yet despite the lacklustre results of the zero-tolerance “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to drugs and petty crimes, America continues to break records in terms of incarceration rates. Why? “That’s the $100,000 question,” says Tracy Velasquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. “Our political system tends to reinforce an increase in incarceration; [for politicians] there’s a need to be tough on crime.”
Ever since the racial and social strife of the 1960s, rehashed for a new generation by the campaign ads Ronald Reagan ran against Michael Dukakis featuring rapist and murderer Willie Horton, leaders everywhere have been working to appear tougher than their opponents. Henson claims “if you had to put your finger on it, Reagan set the tone of the debate”. But he is quick to emphasise – as observers and activists usually are – that it’s wrong to examine criminal justice policy as a left-right issue, since the left and right have both failed miserably. “Joe Biden and John Kerry and Tom Harkin are the biggest drug warriors in the Senate,” he claims. “Obama, in his stimulus package, even wanted to triple funding [for drug enforcement agencies] and ended up doubling it.”
Velasquez explained that “there hasn’t been a downside to being tough on crime” – a downside when courting votes. But for the millions of Americans locked up for minor crimes and pushed around by well-funded police, the downside has been apparent for some time.
There are social issues in the prison system that warrant not just concern but urgent action. Gangs have been using the penal system as a recruiting mechanism and their influence has grown. Inmate populations have segregated themselves along racial lines to further conform to gang culture. Sexual abuse is also prevalent: a recent study found that 60,000 inmates are abused each year with prison staff cited as frequent culprits (6). Beyond the fences there are other problems: more than half of America’s incarcerated citizens are parents.
Occasionally, politicians point to the amenities afforded to some inmates and lament that murderers and rapists are living more comfortably than they should. A sheriff in Arizona garnered press attention for having his prisoners live in tents beneath the desert sun (a move that prompted an investigation by Amnesty International). Such attitudes have created a system that merits shame and disappointment.
Cradle to prison
In 40 years Americans have asked their leaders only to take those unseemly, typically non-white people on the sidewalks peddling crack, lock them up, and throw away the key. While conservatives like Reagan lamented “cradle-to-grave” welfare, his and other presidential policies have created a cradle-to-prison system where impoverished communities produce youth who choose to take their chances within the profitable drug or criminal world rather than do a minimum-wage job in the service sector. Police, flush with money from the federal government, round up some of the “usual suspects” who will face stiff penalties in a legal system they will have little help in navigating. Locked away, they may leave behind families who could use their help, in fact need it.
Each inmate is different and each story is complicated but politicians at every level of government seem to have found a solution that is absurdly simple. And yet none of it works. Crime is not falling as a result of tougher laws; the criminal justice system is anything but economical; mass incarceration is creating a wide range of social problems in the communities it has affected; and even after the one million plus people who work in the prisons are paid their wages and more laws are authored, America has little to show for its crusade against crime and drugs.
“It’s not the kingpin but the low-level dealer [who is put] in jail,” Velasquez points out. It’s a lack of alternative work that has drawn millions of Americans into drugs and then jail. While narcotics have also spread to wealthier neighbourhoods, Henson reminds us that “one side of the [railroad] tracks has taken the brunt. Drugs have spread but not prosecution”.
If the problem rests in bipartisan racism, in bipartisan neoliberalism and in bipartisan indifference, a solution seems to be emerging from bipartisan concern. While there are several lawmakers on the left who have worked on this issue for decades, the political climate has marginalised their power. Yet as Republicans scramble to secure their conservative credentials by exercising “fiscal conservatism”, many have considered ways of diminishing the costs of the corrections system and finding alternatives to incarceration. And as states struggle to balance their budgets, polls reflect more positive attitudes towards the legalisation of marijuana and wardens run out of cells, this could be the perfect moment for debate.