The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control

The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control

The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control

The Perils of Federalism: Race, Poverty, and the Politics of Crime Control


Much of the existing research on race and crime focuses on the manipulation of crime by political elites or the racially biased nature of crime policy. In contrast, Lisa L. Miller here specifically focuses on political and socio-legal institutions and actors that drive these developments and their relationship to the politics of race and poverty; in particular, the degree to which citizens at most risk of victimization--primarily racial minorities and the poor--play a role in the development of political responses to crime and violence.

Miller begins her study by providing a detailed analysis of the narrow and often parochial nature of national and state crime politics, drawing a sharp contrast to the active and intense local political mobilization on crime by racial minorities and the urban poor. In doing so,The Perils of Federalism illustrates the ways in which the structure of U.S. federalism has contributed to the absence of black and poor victims of violence from national policy responses to crime and how highly organized but narrowly focused interest groups, such as the National Rifle Association, have a disproportionate influence in crime politics. Moreover, it illustrates how the absence of these groups from the policy process at other levels promotes policy frames that are highly skewed in favor of police, prosecutors, and narrow citizen interests, whose policy preferences often converge on increasing punishments for offenders.

Ultimately,The Perils of Federalismchallenges the conventional wisdom about the advantages of federalization and explains the key disadvantages that local communities face in trying to change policy.


I first began thinking about how federalism might structure crime, law, and policy in the 1990s when I conducted research on a Department of Justice policy called Weed and Seed. the program provided federal funding for urban areas to target particular high-crime neighborhoods. the strategy was to weed out the criminal element and seed the area with social services and other programs designed to revitalize communities. Weed and Seed inspired a great deal of opposition in Seattle and other locales where it was to be implemented, and in the course of my research on the program, I was struck by the differences between the Justice Department’s program goals and the goals of local community leaders. Their problem definitions, understanding of the origins of crime, solutions for crime problems, and implementation strategies were virtually polar opposites of one another. Had community leaders in Seattle been part of the policy design process, I mused, this program might have been called “Seed, Mulch, and Carefully Weed.”

Why was the Justice Department’s program so thoroughly disconnected from the objectives and preferences of local organizations and community groups, some of whom openly refused to take the seed money out of protest? How much urban mobilization around crime and public safety exists, and does it differ from the political mobilization around crime in other venues? How could urban communities with high rates of serious crime effectively pressure democratic institutions to respond to their quality of life and public safety needs? I began to wonder how the range of interest groups that participate in crime and justice policymaking varied across levels of government and whether different types of groups offered different messages about crime and its origins. This pursuit of the relationship between democratic accountability and social . . .

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