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The 'Tough on Crime’ Wave Is Finally Cresting

For Trump and Sessions, it seemed, it was still 1968. They are waging traditional scare politics. But something unexpected happened on the way to the backlash.

  • Inimai M. Chettiar
  • Udi Ofer
January 16, 2018

Cross-posted on The Daily Beast 

For decades, politi­cians competed to see who could push the most draconian crim­inal justice policies. Jeff Session­s’s announce­ment this month that he would author­ize federal prosec­utors to go after pot even in states where it is legal seems ripped straight from that play­book. But the “tough on crime” Attor­ney General may be in for a surprise. In 2018, it turns out, demagoguery about crime no longer packs a polit­ical punch. In fact, support for reform may prove to be a sleeper issue in 2018 and 2020.

This would be a big change. Candid­ates most prom­in­ently began to compete on crime in the tumul­tu­ous 1960s. Richard Nixon won with ads show­ing burn­ing cities and scowl­ing young men, ads craf­ted by an unknown aide named Roger Ailes. Ronald Reagan launched a “war on drugs.” George H.W. Bush won in 1988 with notori­ous ads telling the story of Willie Horton, who was allowed out of prison under a week­end furlough program. Bill Clin­ton in 1992 bragged of his support for the death penalty. These chest-thump­ing themes were echoed in hundreds of campaigns down the ballot each year.

Polit­ics driven by fear of crime had direct, destruct­ive social costs. Today, with just under five percent of the world’s popu­la­tion, the U.S. has nearly 25 percent of its pris­on­ers. Black communit­ies bear the brunt, with one in four­black men serving time during their life­times.

Over the last decade, a bipar­tisan move­ment has arisen to push back and revise crim­inal justice policy. Through­out 2016 it made real strides. Black Lives Matter and advoc­ates brought national aware­ness. The Demo­cratic and Repub­lican parties included redu­cing impris­on­ment in their plat­forms; a stark reversal of past policy. Every major candid­ate for pres­id­ent – with the excep­tion of Donald Trump – went on the record support­ing justice reform.

Then came the start­ling rise of Pres­id­ent Trump. In his inaug­ural address, he warned of “Amer­ican carnage” and rampant crime. His attor­ney general, Jeff Sessions, had killed the bipar­tisan senten­cing reform bill as a senator. Now, at the Justice Depart­ment, he is piece-by-piece dismant­ling his prede­cessors’ efforts to reduce federal impris­on­ment rates. This has chilled the artery of many politi­cians once eager to support reform efforts in Wash­ing­ton.

For Trump and Sessions, it seemed, it was still 1968. They are waging tradi­tional scare polit­ics. But some­thing unex­pec­ted happened on the way to the back­lash.

Lawmakers in blue and red states alike pressed forward with reforms. In 2017, 19 states passed 57 pieces of bipar­tisan reform legis­la­tion. Louisi­ana reduced sentences. Connecti­cut modern­ized bail. Geor­gia over­hauled proba­tion. Michigan passed an 18-bill pack­age to reduce its prison popu­la­tion.

And in the 2017 elec­tions, candid­ates won on plat­forms that proact­ively embraced justice reform. In Virginia, for example, gubernat­orial candid­ate Ed Gillespie defined his campaign by running modern day “Willie Horton” ads against Ralph Northam for restor­ing the right to vote to former pris­on­ers, and branded him as “weak” on MS-13. Voters handed Northam a size­able win. In deeply conser­vat­ive Alabama, Doug Jones campaigned on crim­inal justice reform. Trump repeatedly attacked Doug Jones as “soft on crime.” But Jones beat Roy Moore.

Urban polit­ics have been trans­formed, too. District attor­neys campaign­ing on redu­cing impris­on­ment are winning across the nation, most recently in Phil­adelphia. Justice reform proved a power­ful organ­iz­ing issue among the young and in communit­ies of color.

There’s a reason that candid­ates who embrace a crim­inal justice reform plat­form do well. Ninety-one percent of Amer­ic­ans support crim­inal justice reform, with two in three Amer­ic­ans (includ­ing 65 percent of Trump voters) more likely to vote for candid­ates who support redu­cing impris­on­ment. An even higher percent­age support an end to mandat­ory minim­ums, and 64 percent of Amer­ic­ans support marijuana legal­iz­a­tion (includ­ing 51 percent of Repub­lic­ans).

All of this creates a real polit­ical open­ing for politi­cians ready to act with just a modicum of cour­age. If Demo­crats want to demon­strate care for Black communit­ies, they should campaign on ending mass incar­cer­a­tion. Polls show this is a winning issue for Repub­lic­ans too. Trump and Sessions lie far out of the main­stream. At the federal level, candid­ates can support the Senten­cing Reform and Correc­tions Act and the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act. At the state level, they can support ending impris­on­ment for many crimes, short­en­ing sentences for others, reform­ing drug lawsturn­ing felon­ies into misde­mean­ors, and ending cash bail

To be sure, the public still worries about crime. After the police protests, conser­vat­ives claimed that a “Ferguson effect” was caus­ing police to pull back, lead­ing to a reversal of long-term trends toward greater public safety. But new stat­ist­ics show that that spike was just that: a tempor­ary twitch upward, with crime headed back down in 2017. And states over the last decade have shown crime and incar­cer­a­tion can be reduced together.

For decades, like death and taxes, tough-on-crime polit­ics seemed as if it would always be with us. Crime scare ads have lost their potent power. Crim­inal justice reform turns out to be a polit­ical winner.

(Photo: Think­stock)