A POLITICAL HISTORY OF CRIME
ON THE CONGRESSIONAL AGENDA
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike answered. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Legal scholars and social scientists writing about crime policy at the national level have focused primarily on the sudden growth in federal criminal jurisdiction over the past 40 years.1 While this growth is indisputable, the emphasis on recent years misstates the slow development of crime as a national policy issue over the course of the nation’s history. A more accurate picture reflects something of Mike’s answer to the question of his financial ruin in The Sun Also Rises. How has federal jurisdiction over ordinary crimes grown so large? Gradually over the course of the nation’s first 150 years, and then suddenly in the wake of social upheavals, increasing crime rates, racial prejudice, and dramatic changes to the structure of American politics. This perspective on crime in national politics is consistent with recent research on the dramatic increases in incarceration rates in the 1970s and 1980s and also with more general American politics scholarship illustrating that attention to social problems can evolve both gradually and suddenly.2 Each process has important implications for how issues are framed, the groups that participate in the policy process, and the institutions that emerge as a result of agenda attention.
There are several limitations to short-term analyses of national crime policy. First and foremost, they miss an opportunity to see how paths of access to policy making become smoothed in favor of specific actors and