Social Insecurity: The Transformation of American Criminal Justice, 1965--2000

By Platt, Anthony M. | Social Justice, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Social Insecurity: The Transformation of American Criminal Justice, 1965--2000


Platt, Anthony M., Social Justice


Just from a Christian standpoint, you can't see one of these and not consider that maybe it's not right.

--Jim Willet, warden of Huntsville prison in Texas, after supervising 40 executions in one year (Rimer, 2000a)

We're Number One!

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MANY YEARS, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT WAS NOT A CONTESTED issue in the 2000 presidential race. By the end of Clinton's second term, the Democratic and Republican platforms shared the same premises about law and order, and disagreed only on details. Unlike Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign, Bill Clinton made sure in 1992 that he would not be labeled a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" or represented as the kind of governor who releases a Willie Horton into a work furlough program. While governor of Arkansas, Clinton approved the death penalty and as a presidential candidate he accused Republicans of being soft on crime. During the 1994 midterm election campaign, President Clinton supported a "three strikes" provision in a federal crime bill (Cole, 1999: 147). George W. Bush arrives in office with a record of presiding over a state with the second largest prison population and almost half the executions carried out in the country in 2000.

The recent presidential election may have been in doubt for several weeks, but as far as criminal justice policies are concerned, it made little difference which party triumphed. By 1992, the traditional liberal agenda on crime -- prevention, community development, rehabilitation, and abolition of the death penalty -- had, like liberalism itself, disappeared from official political discourse, to be replaced by a bipartisan consensus of demagoguery. In 2000, Republicans and Democrats echoed each other's position: Clinton and Gore "fought for and won the biggest anti-drug budgets in history.... They funded new prison cells, and expanded the death penalty for cop killers and terrorists.... But we have just begun to fight the forces of lawlessness and violence," called the Democrats. "We renew our call," the Republicans responded, "for a complete overhaul of the juvenile justice system that will punish juvenile offenders" and for "no-frills prisons" for adults (Democratic National Convention, 2000; Republican Na tional Convention, 2000).

Meanwhile, given the rush to retribution, most people would not know that people's safety is for the most part 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 declined over the last 20 years. The drop in the crime rate in the 1990s resulted from a complex interplay of demographic, economic, and social factors. Even mainstream criminologists admit that imprisonment and more punitive sentencing accounted for only five to 25% of the decline in crime (Butterfield, 2000b). According to a recent New York Times survey, 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average; and during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 to 101% higher than in states without the death penalty (Bonner and Fessenden, 1999: 1). When the law-and-order campaign was at its height in the early 1990s, the rates for murder and rape were high, but about the same as in the early 1970s; other crimes of violence, such as robbery and assault, had declined; and youth violence was a small and decreasing part of serious crime in the United States. [1] Victimization rates in 1999, reports the Department of Justice, are the lowest recorded since the National Crime Victimization Survey's creation in 1973 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999).

Yet, by the early 1990s, a moral panic about crime and lawlessness was in full swing throughout the country, from Puerto Rico, where the National Guard was called upon to police housing projects, to the beaches of southern California, where curfews were imposed to prevent gang violence, and to Florida, where state politicians proposed reducing the age of execution to 14 and fining welfare mothers for their kids' crimes (Navarro, 1994: 6; Rimer, 1994: 1; Rohter, 1994: 10). …

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