In the midst of two decades of social neglect, the white majority in America presented its inner cities with an expensive gift - a new and improved criminal justice system. It would, the government promised, bring domestic tranquillity - particularly with regard to African Americans. No expense was spared in crafting it and delivering it inside the city gates. It was, in fact, a Trojan Horse.
While neoconservative commentators such as Charles Murray argued that payments through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program had undermined family stability and sabotaged work incentives, the real value of AFDC and food stamp payments to the poor had been steadily declining.(1) Meanwhile, urban schools had deteriorated and fallen into disrepair. Not so with criminal justice. In a society obsessed with single mothers on welfare, more money ($31 billion) was being spent annually at the local, state, and federal levels on a failed drug war alone than on that symbol of vaunted liberal largesse, AFDC ($22 billion).(2)
As government investment in social and employment programs in the inner cities was held stable or cut back during the 1980s, the criminal justice system was ratcheted up to fill the void. Federal, state, and local expenditures for police grew 416%; for courts, 585%; for prosecution and legal services, 1,019%; for public defense, 1,255%; and for corrections, 989.5%. Federal spending for justice grew 668%; county spending increased 710.9%; state spending surged 848%. By 1990 the country was spending $75 billion annually to catch and lock up offenders.(3) For the white majority, it was a popular way to go - particularly as it became clear that these draconian measures would fall heaviest on minorities in general and African American males in particular. The rationale for all this criminal justice activity lay in the putatively exploding crime rates - particularly the rate of violent crime. As it turned out, even this premise was questionable.(4)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, crime as a social problem and political issue took on the character of a national game of "bait and switch" that meshed with the interests of an aggressive law enforcement establishment. The bait was "violent crime," usually seen as involving inner-city African American youths. The "switch" occurred when law enforcement armamentaria were brought to bear. Since relatively few violent offenders could be found among the millions of citizens of color in the so-called under-class who were being dragged into the justice system, the labels and definitions as to who was dangerous were broadened to include as many as possible as often as possible.
The FBI Uniform Crime Reports, on which the media routinely base official estimates of crime, inflated both the numbers and the seriousness of the types of incidents reported. Whereas most European nations report their crime statistics on the basis of convictions, UCR statistics are based on complaints or arrests. However, about 43 of every 100 individuals arrested for a felony either were not prosecuted or had their cases dismissed outright at the first court appearance. These dismissals had nothing to do with plea bargains; usually there was not sufficient reason to proceed with the case.(5)
For example, of the 399,277 arrests for "aggravated assault" reported by the FBI in 1990 (a grossly disproportionate percentage of them involving African Americans), only 53,861 (13.4%) resulted in felony convictions.(6) Though figures like this are usually taken by conservative commentators as demonstrating the permissiveness of the justice system, in fact there is quite another phenomenon at work. Police were charging arrestees with violent crimes that they didn't, in fact, commit.
A survey of the "adjudication outcome" for felony defendants in the 75 largest counties in the country revealed that half of the cases of defendants charged with an assault were dismissed outright; half of the remaining charges were reduced to misdemeanors. …