The Politics of Law and Order

By Platt, Anthony M. | Social Justice, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Law and Order


Platt, Anthony M., Social Justice


We're Number One!

Every politician running for office in the November elections recognized that law and order demagoguery was the ticket to success. Though the Republicans proved themselves tougher and nastier than Bill Clinton's New Democrats, as far as criminal justice policies are concerned it made little difference which party triumphed.(1) By 1992, the traditional liberal agenda on crime - prevention, community development, mediation, rehabilitation, and abolition of the death penalty - had, like liberalism itself, disappeared from official political discourse.

Meanwhile, given the current rash to retribution, you wouldn't know that people's safety is unrelated to the number of police or severity of punishment; or that most crime is not even reported to the police; or that the overall crime rate has gone down over the last 20 years. The rates for murder and rape are high, but are about the same as they were in the early 1970s; other crimes of violence, such as robbery and assault, have declined and youth violence is a small and decreasing part of serious crime in the United States.(2) Yet a moral panic about crime and lawlessness is in full swing throughout the country, from Puerto Rico, where the National Guard is called upon to police housing projects, to the beaches of southern California, where curfews are imposed to prevent gang violence (Navarro, 1994: 6; Rimer, 1994: 1). Legislators at every level of government are in fierce competition to prove their devotion to criminalization and punishment. Congress recently passed a $30.2 billion crime bill that will fund 100,000 new police and $8.8 billion in prison construction. The new Congress is likely to toughen this essentially right-wing bill by eliminating its token social programs, adding new restrictions on death-row appeals and trying to weaken what remains of constitutional restraints on the police (New York Times, 1994: 10).

Variants of "three strikes and you're out," which mandates life imprisonment for prisoners convicted of a third felony, operate now in more than 30 states (Rohter, 1994: 1). California will require at least 20 new prisons to meet the provisions of its three strikes initiative and some 600 other bills that are waiting in line before the legislature's Public Safety Committee (Chavez, 1994: 1). Florida's legislature is also awash in crime bills, including proposals to reduce the age of execution to 14 and to fine welfare mothers for their kids' crimes (Rohter, 1994: 10). To avoid any accusation of being soft on crime, New York and Ohio are reducing and eliminating recreational programs in prison, while Mississippi is the first state to put convicts back in striped uniforms (Nossiter, 1994: 1).

At the local level, budget-strapped city councils and boards of supervisors are cutting schools and other public services in order to maintain or expand their police and sheriffs departments. They, too, are hard at work expanding the justice net through legislation that criminalizes "aggressive panhandling" and crams already overcrowded jails with the homeless and chronically unemployed, quite similar in conception and impact to the English Poor Laws that filled workhouses with "sturdy beggars" some 400 years ago.

When it comes to biggest and best, you cannot beat the U.S. criminal justice system - 14 million arrests annually; more than 1.7 million employed as police, guards, and other functionaries at a total cost to taxpayers of about $74 billion (or about three times as much as the economic relief allotted to 4.5 million families on AFDC); 1.5 million incarcerated, including 3,000 prisoners stacked up in a waiting pattern on death row. By 1993, almost five million people in this country were under some kind of correctional supervision (jail, prison, probation, and parole) and there are no signs indmcating that the trend is abating. On the contrary, about the only debate you can hear in the corridors of power these days is whether the victims of execution should be electrocuted, gassed, drugged, or shot to death (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1994; Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993: 2, 23, 422; Butterfield, 1992: E4; Rothman, 1994: 34-38). …

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