How can we understand this shift in the social regulation of marginal populations in New York in the 1990s? Two discourses have emerged in the last twenty years to explain this process. In one, criminologists ask whether this transformation is part of a process of growing criminalization and punitiveness toward those who violate the law and community norms or is merely a more effective form of policing and criminal justice administration developed in response to popular calls for enhanced security. In the other discourse, urbanists debate whether or not quality-of-life politics developed as a response to a decline in public civility or gentrification and disorder emerging as a result of growing inequality. These two fields of study are a logical starting point for a framework to interpret the complex social, political, and economic changes associated with the rise of quality-of-life politics.
Criminologists are concerned with why, over the last thirty years, the orientation of American society has become more punitive toward crime and disorder. More people are in jail for longer periods; more police are patrolling the streets; and support for the death penalty remains widespread. Currently, a staggering two million people are incarcerated in the United States, and another four million are on probation or parole. Since the 1980s, numerous states have imposed heavier penalties for a variety of violent and nonviolent crimes and increased their use of the death penalty. This is in marked contrast to the predictions of classical sociological and criminological theorists, who argue that the natural social progression is to find more integrative methods of dealing with deviance and to move away from more punitive methods. These theorists