Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Political Uses of Crime

For the past few years I've used a book called "Making Crime Pay" by Katherine Beckett in my criminology courses.  I like it because through the combined use of historical research, political discourse, media narratives, and public opinion polls, she shows how both fear of crime and the image many of us have in our heads of the young black male criminal are social and political constructions.  Here's the basic outline/argument:

She begins by noting the increase in the number of people in prison that started in the early 1970s and lasted up until the mid-1990s (when the book was published).  In the early 70s the US incarcerated about 300,000 people in federal and state prisons and jails.  By the mid-90s that number rose to 1.5 million (it's currently at 2.3 million, the highest in the world in both pure numbers and per 100,000 people).  She asks a simple question.  How did this happen?  Is it the result of a rise in actual crime experienced among US citizens who then pressure their lawmakers to get tough on crime, or is something else at work?  She then proposes an alternative hypothesis.  Perhaps, the growth in the number of poeple in prison, and the related 'get tough on crime' movement is less about actual experiences with crime and more about a successful campaign to scare people and then propose tougher sentencing policies as demonstrations of politicians at work.

In the second chapter, she puts this question to the test.  Looking at two time periods, the late 1960s to early 1970s and the 1980 thru the mid-1990s she compares political initiatives, media narratives and public opinon polls together and notes that changes in public opinion on crime seem to follow political initiative and media narratives.  In other words,  first came political discourse and media narratives (as a means of communicating political discourse), then people started to fear crime.  This finding seems at odds with the belief that fear of crime resulted from personal experience and instead supports the idea that fear of crime was successfully mobilized via political strategy.  She then spends the next three chapter examining the political discourse of the Nixon administration (for the war on crime), and then the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations for the war on drugs to see exactly what messages were dominating the media, and creating both fear of crime and fear of urban black men.

This is interesting in and of itself, but there is a larger point.  The start of the war on crime is no coincidence.  It's actually rooted even before Nixon, in Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaing.  Here's the context.  The national democrats were up in the air as to whether or not to support the civil rights movement.  Kennedy was not sure, but then decided it was worth the political risk to openly support it, but in doing, he knew they'd marginalize the southern dixiecrats, who were a strong voting block assembled by FDR referred to as New Deal Democrats since they were organized around a solid working class identity.  Well, Goldwater and Nixon knew that this was an unstable group that could be split along racial lines.  When Kennedy decided to support the civil rights movement, conservatives swept in, framed civil rights activists not as courageous people standing up for their rights, but as criminals who were rewarded for their criminality.  The now abandoned southern dixiecrats gobbled it up, and the south turned from largely blue to the solidly red voting block we see today.  The is referred to as The Southern Strategy.

Side Note: Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steel alluded to it in a speech he gave about 8 months ago when discussing why there are so few black republicans, but he was then skewered for his remarks by his fellow Republicans

This strategy was furhter utilized during the Reagan administration, who turned it into a war on drugs in part because the federal government can't really go into local cities and enforce laws. But narcotis control made possible with the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1917, provided one avenue to do so (because narcotic trafficing likely crosses state lines).  In practice, what followed these political initiatives were large funding grants to increase local police departments, expand prison and jail construction, purchase the latest weapon and crime control technologies, as well as a steady movement of tougher and tougher sentencing policies, which states agressively pursued.  Here we saw the passage of such things as school zone sentencing laws (made possible with the popular myth of the school yard preditor who's trying to hook our innocent children on drugs), three-strikes policies (in an attempt to stop 'career' criminals who we are told choose crime becasue the benefits outweigh the costs), and mandatory minimums.  In many cases, the media content that arose from these campaigns drew on urban black men to promote the image of danger and mobilize public support (and hysteria) for tougher and tougher sentencing policies.  The consequence is found in the massive growth in incarceration, an increase in federal, state, and city spending going to crime control instead of other services like education, child care, health, etc., and the vast racial disparity in who gets arrested and goes to prison (about 2,000+ per 100,000 African Americans are under state supervision, more than South African during Apartheid).  Here are some numbers she offers, but remember, these are quite dated now.  Between 1979 adn 1994 the percentage of state inmates convicted of nonviolent drug offenses increase from 6% to 30%, among federal inmates the percentage jumped from 21% to 60% (pg. 89).  These are largely urban dealers (often selling to white college kids in the surrounding areas) and users, which helps explain why so many are black.

The second larger point she notes, is the shifting role of the state.  She says that in the wake of the civil rights movement, the conservative discourse on crime and growth in the police state reflects a shift in the role of the state, one that was more focused on the social welfare of its citizens (emerging in FDR's New Deal) to one of social control, where the primary role of the state is to punish rather than enable and help. 

As a side note. This shift in state function, the associated costs and number of people incarcerated has done virtually nothing to the actual crime rate.

This is the scenario we see ourselves in today, though about 15 years ahead Beckett.  In a time when New Orleans is building a new jail to house more prisoners and apparently address the hightened violent crime in the city, we should take a second to both see the broader historical and racial context of crime control and incarceration in cities across the country, and ask ourselves what we expect to achieve with this new jail?  The past 40 years of evidence suggest we should expect to see little change in crime, but a greater demonstration of state control largely over poor, urban African Americans and Hispanics.

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