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Crime Rave: Law-and-order demagoguery

Anthony Platt


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. 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 rush 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 twenty years. The rates for murder and rape are high, but 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. 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. 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.

Variants of "three strikes and you're out," which mandates life imprisonment for prisoners convicted of a third felony, now operate in more than thirty states. California will require at least twenty new prisons to meet the provisions of its three strikes initiative and some six hundred other bills that are waiting in line before the legislature' s Public Safety Committee. Florida's legislature is also awash in crime bills, including proposals to reduce the age of execution to fourteen and to fine welfare mothers for their kids' crimes. 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.

They are also 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

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 sheriff's departments. They are also 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 four hundred years ago.

When it comes to biggest and best, you can't 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); at least 1.5 million incarcerated, including 3,000 prisoners stacked up in a waiting pattern on death row. By 1993, almost 5 million people in this country were under some kind of correctional supervision (jail, prison, probation, and parole) and no signs indicate 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.

The United States now has the largest, most complex, most expensive, most punitive system of justice in the world, and the most insecurity about crime, with no relief in sight. As everybody knows, "public safety" is an illusion: it's every individual woman, man, and child to his or her own defense. That is why even the police tell everybody to learn techniques of "target-hardening" and "defensible space"-- -organize neighborhood watches, look out for suspicious characters, and if you're a woman carry a whistle and mace, take classes in martial arts, and stay off the streets after dark. In other words, take personal responsibility, and good luck! How did we get to this place, and what do we make of it?

Panics and Panaceas
The current political preoccupation with crime and justice has little to do with either. With the collapse of liberalism and the Keynesian regulatory state, the old Fordist social pact has been broken, giving rise to more coercive and exclusionary forms of social control. What poses as moral outrage about crime is in fact a recognition of the weakening political authority of the state. Some twenty years of structural unemployment in the former industrial zones, ruthless cuts in public spending, declining participation in the electoral process, plus sustained policies of malign neglect of the growing racial divide, have tipped open the social fabric and created widespread anxieties about personal well-being and security.

The whole political establishment has followed the lead of the New Right in successfully staking out this terrain of insecurity and couching its repressive measures in a populist moralism, to use Stuart Hall' s term. Also a number of leading intellectuals once again have jumped aboard the bandwagon with opinions that echo the prevailing anti-intellectualism. "The public supports more gun control laws but suspects they won' t work. The public is right," proclaims James Q. wilson, Richard Nixon' s favorite social scientist. "The case for more police and additional punishment rests on the immediate impacts these measures can achieve, " argues Gary Becker, economist and Nobel prize winner. "They do not take a generation to become effective: They can reduce crime straightaway. " It is tempting to exchange short-term solutions with demagogues who wrap their ideology in the language of common sense and folk wisdom, belittling the abstractions and complexity of out-of-touch liberals. But we need to remember that these men of action have not got the job done after some thirty years of effort and, more significantly, that their "practical" program has been profoundly motivated by a long-term ideological agenda. Without any competing interpretations that explain the demise of the U.S. dream or provide a vision of a more compassionate society, simple-minded panaceas resonate widely with people who want solutions fight now and are willing to concede democratic rights to a more authoritarian regime.

Today, as often in the past, the law and order discourse is a thinly coded representation about race, an "ideological conductor" for both popular discontents and the state's inability to manage racial antagonisms.

There's nothing particularly new about politicians and the media constructing moral panics to mobilize public opinion against illusory crime waves. We've seen it before with crusades against the "dangerous classes" in the nineteenth century, against vice and degeneracy in immigrant communities during the Progressive Era, against delinquent mothers in the 1950s, and black "muggers" in the 1970s. Today, as often in the past, the law and order discourse is a thinly coded representation about race, an "ideological conductor" for both popular discontents and the state's inability to manage racial antagonisms. Nobody has any doubt in their minds about the racial innuendo when Time magazine, in its special issue on crime, notes that "randomly, irrationally, crime pounds at the door of a slumber party. It pulls up besides a tourist at a highway rest stop. It catches the 5:33."

The current law-and-order campaign is not simply another ephemeral storm of outrage that will gradually dissipate. It is part of a profound shift taking place in state power. If we are to have any hope of reconstructing a progressive agenda on crime and justice, we must first understand that there have been significant, qualitative changes in the structures of criminal justice, a process that is thirty years old and still unfolding. Let me identify and discuss four key elements in this transformation.

Policing the Crisis
First, it was not crime but social movements and grass-roots protest, plus the growing decay of urban centers, that motivated national leaders in the 1960s to modernize criminal justice bureaucracies that had developed regionally and haphazardly with little coordination since the 1930s. The anarchic rage unleashed by the post-civil rights ghetto revolts, as well as the obviously chaotic response to them by city police departments and National Guards, prompted the federal government and corporate businessmen to establish a series of national commissions (including Johnson's Crime Commission, the Kerner Commission, and Eisenhower's Violence Commission).

One immediate result of this attention was the availability of federal funds to stimulate far-reaching reforms and impose national standards and strategies on local and state agencies. Between 1955 and 1971, criminal justice expenditures throughout the country doubled to 1 percent of the about five times what it had been in the previous decade.

The main beneficiary of this new largesse were the police, who by 1974 received 57 percent of the nation's $15 billion criminal justice budget, eight times the amount they had received ten years earlier. From 1965 to 1975, the number of police increased by about 40 percent, and in large cities like Los Angeles they grew even faster. This development was shaped by the rise of a police-industrial complex that, backed by government subsidies and a heavy reliance on military expertise, introduced technology (in weaponry, communications, and information systems) and managerial techniques of command and control into policing. During the 1970s, the police were reorganized and diversified (from SWAT units to team policing), armed for every occasion, and plugged into nationally coordinated data bases. There was considerable political opposition to these innovations (notably from African American, Latino, and New Left organizations, which countered with demands for civilian review boards and "community control"), but by the end of the 1970s the left was silenced on these issues and policing had been transformed into a much more disciplined and militarized occupation, loyal to the state but little else. For poor communities of color that have the highest rates of victimization (by "street," business, and environmental crimes), the police are either irrelevant or yet another institution adding insult to injury.

Secondly, during the last thirty years privatization has come to play such an influential role in the routine functioning of the criminal justice system that the line between its public and private functions has become quite blurred. Again, this is not new (see, for example, the routine contracting out of prison labor to local firms prior to the First World War or the widespread use of Pinkerton's and Burns' cops against the labor movement), but its recent growth and scope are unprecedented. There has been a significant shift from the post- Second World War emphasis by policymakers that crime control is best left to the experts to today's widely shared recognition that the criminal justice system can control only a very small portion of serious crime (and even this requires active "public cooperation").

Aided by deregulation policies and the increasing privatization of public services during the Reagan years, large corporations found lucrative contracts in the expanding criminal justice market for everything from riot batons and surveillance systems to modular prison units and electronic restraints. In the 1980s criminal justice became a growth industry, with bond measures for prison construction and new institutional designs.

At the current rate of growth, by the year 2000 there will be close to 2 million private police, at a cost of about $100 billion annually.

Meanwhile, private security firms forged an indispensable niche for themselves as the class and racial divide widened in the 1980s and downtown businesses sought to put a moat around their free enterprise zones. In 1969, private security firms employed some 290,000 personnel and generated about $3.3 billion in business. By 1991, private policing was a $52 billion per annum business (outspending public policing by about 73 percent), employing 1.5 million personnel (compared to 600,000 in the public sector). At the current rate of growth, by the year 2000 there will be close to 2 million private police, at a cost of about $100 billion annually.

The brave new world of downtown, as Mike Davis has illustrated in his analysis of Los Angeles, is now a complex, multifaceted operation, combining a mix of public and private cops, architectural barriers, technologies of omnipresent surveillance, and new forms of instrumental discipline adapted from DisneyWorld and stadium rock concerts. Meanwhile, out in the suburbs there are some 30,000 guarded or gated private housing developments and in the last ten years there has been a five- fold increase in the number of homes with burglar alarms. The price of fortification varies, ranging from low-cost guards to expensive high-tech security, such as a computerized projectile-launching device which fires a cylinder into the bodies of unauthorized cars trying to enter Santa Clarita's Hidden Valley near Los Angeles.

For the urban poor--stuck in the unsafe, largely unpoliced ghettos, barrios, housing projects, and abandoned real estate--security comes and looks cheaper: walls topped with claws, spikes, and razor-ribbon wire; fenced-in roofs and bolted doors fronted by iron gates; guard dogs and cheap guns. "Throughout the nation's cities," notes Camilo Jose Vergara,

we are witnessing the physical hardening of a new order, streetscapes so menacing, so alien, that they would not be tolerated if they were found anywhere besides poor, minority communities. In brick and cinderblock and sharpened metal, inequality takes material form.

The privatization of justice has bought some security for the upper strata who are willing and able to pay top dollar. But for most people, the emphasis on security just nourishes their anxieties and feeds the short-lived illusion that well-being can be consumed with quick- fix solutions. More significantly and dangerously, this trend concedes authority over the traditionally public institutions of civil society to what are essentially private armies, close relatives of the mercenaries and vigilantes who are fast becoming indispensable to state power around the world.

Imprisonment Revived
Thirdly, as public spending on the police peaked in 1977, the fiscal and policy emphasis shifted to incarceration. The prison population grew throughout the 1970s (by 42 percent, or almost 100,000, between 1975 and 1981) and at an even faster and unprecedented rate in the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1990, there was a 70 percent increase in the number of guards and other personnel working in state prisons (from 144,855 to 245,750). In California, the state's prison population almost tripled in a decade (1983-1994), making prison guards into some of the best-paid public employees (averaging $44,000) and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association into one of the most powerful unions in the state.

By 1993 there were over 1.5 million adults and youth (overwhelmingly male) incarcerated in prisons, jails, and detention centers each day. Recent passage of three strikes legislation means that very likely the penal population will grow even faster in the 1990s. The unprecedented growth of policing in the 1970s and prisons in the 1980s has been financed by drastic cuts in public education, health care, and welfare, only compounding the fiscal crises facing local and state governments. California, for example, now spends more on its prisons than it does to educate students in all of its twenty state universities and 107 community colleges combined.

The significance of this trend is demonstrated most dramatically in the changing rate of imprisonment: in the late 1970s, the national rate of imprisonment per 100,000 citizens was just over 100 (relatively unchanged since the 1930s); it had increased to 139 by 1980 and to 210 by 1986; by 1994 it was up to 373 and still growing, a more than three-fold increase in just twenty years. Just when the rest of the west began to abandon the nineteenth-century penitentiary and turn to other less coercive and humiliating forms of social control, the United States resuscitated its prison system--England's rate is 97, Japan's 45, and the Netherlands' 40. With the possible exception of Russia, the United States now leads the world in rates of incarceration, far ahead of South Africa's 311.

The gutting of public services during the 1980s has meant that prisons and jails have become dumping grounds for people with serious health problems, such as tuberculosis and HIV-related illnesses.

Prisons in this country have always been punitive and demeaning, but they've reached a new low in the 1990s. Most institutions are now so hopelessly overcrowded that they are routinely in violation of court orders mandating basic human rights. The gutting of public services during the 1980s has meant that prisons and jails have become dumping grounds for people with serious health problems, such as tuberculosis and HIV-related illnesses. For example, there were 200 AIDS-related deaths in New York's state prisons in 1992; and of the 3,200 prisoners in California's largest prison at Vacaville, 450 are HIV positive. Also, with the closing of mental hospitals and community clinics, prisons and jails are turning into psychiatric facilities. One quarter (or 30,000) of California's prisoners, for example, suffer from some kind of serious mental illness.

In the nineteenth century, there was at least some expectation that prisoners might become disciplined and productive citizens. And on those rare occasions during this century when value was attached to prisoners' work (as during the Second World War, when able-bodied men were drafted and the labor reserve depleted), penal conditions improved. But for the last twenty years there has been no productive work for prisoners. Prisons have become absolute dead ends for millions of men (in the same way that our welfare system has become a punitive and humiliating experience for millions of poor women and children). Those who survive the experience leave embittered, angry, and unskilled, convinced that in a dog-eat-dog world only the toughest and meanest survive. Unlike the 1950s, when the economy was expanding and the "rehabilitation" of prisoners made some sense, ex-prisoners must now compete for low-paying, non-union service jobs with millions of laid- off, part-time, and new workers who haven't done time. The current crackdown on prisoners' rights and "country-club" living standards is as much driven by economic realities, which have made millions of prisoners marginal even to the reserve army of labor, as it is by the right's search for easy scapegoats.

Apartheid Justice
Fourthly, as South Africa moves closer to Western-style democracy, we are moving back to an apartheid system of justice. There's nothing particularly new about the racialization of U.S. criminal justice- -witness the use of lynching in the South after Reconstruction or the selective enforcement of opium laws against Chinese immigrants, or the routine use of police brutality against black and Latino communities after the Second World War. But in the wake of the civil rights movements and public exposes of the double standard of justice, there was an expectation that due process and the rule of law would bring some significant changes. That promise has been betrayed. As with the return to hyper-segregation in public housing and education, so too with criminal justice.

By 1979, African Americans comprised 46 percent of all prisoners, and in several states they greatly exceeded the national average-- 60 percent of all prisoners in Delaware, 74 percent in Louisiana, 77 percent in Maryland, 97 percent in Washington, D.C. Similar racial disparities can be found for Latinos in the Southwest and for Native Americans in states like Alaska, Montana, and North and South Dakota.

African Americans bear the brunt of the law and order crackdown. Almost one in every three arrests now involves an African American, typically male and young. According to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, almost one in four black men between the ages of twenty and twenty- nine is either in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole on any given day. This means that there are more young black men in the criminal justice system than the total number of black men of all ages enrolled in college. Nationwide, African Americans make up 12 percent of the general population, but more than 48 percent of prisoners. The disparity is even more explicit, according to criminologist Michael Tonry, when we look at rates of confinement per 100,000. In 1973 the black rate was 368; in 1979 it was 544; and in the 1990s it is an extraordinary 1,860 (compared to 289 for whites), a five-fold increase in twenty years. Imagine the public and political outcry if a comparable percentage of young white men were arrested and incarcerated! How bitterly ironic that those communities with the deepest suffering from racial persecution and economic deprivation are now being demonized as criminal icons.

In the last thirty years there has been a qualitative transformation of the criminal justice system in the United States. Its institutions have become increasingly influenced by national politics and economics, with less and less local accountability. Its police and prisons expanded at unprecedented rates in the 1970s and 1980s, paid for primarily by drastic cuts in public health, welfare, and education. Any pretense at "rehabilitation" has been abandoned and prisoners transformed from an exploitable commodity into dangerous garbage, to be quarantined out of sight, but never out of mind. Privatization of criminal justice products, services, and ideas has developed at such a pace that it no longer makes any sense to analyze private and public justice as separate systems. And the increasing racialization of social control (from San Quentin to city planning) hammers home the conclusion that the struggle for civil rights remains very much unfinished.

The results of the November elections, in which crime played such a prominent role, might suggest that the neoconservative campaign for a more authoritarian state has become the hegemonic ideology because it appears to mirror "common sense." But as the state's fiscal crises deepen, as personal security remains as precarious as ever, and as many millions are denied the full rights of citizenship and access to economic equality, we will see that what appears final and victorious is in fact quite provisional and unstable. Before the politics of law and order become thoroughly institutionalized and irreversible, we have some time to come up with a revitalized progressive agenda. The political and ideological chaos ahead gives us an opportunity to enter the debate and offer our vision of an alternative social order, but time is short. Prison construction is one of our few boom industries these days.

To make a contented slave you must make a thoughtless one.--Frederick Douglass

Anthony M. Platt is a member of the editorial board of Social Justice and professor of social work at California State University, Sacramento. For documentation of facts and quotations in this essay, contact the author at the Division of Social Work, California State University, Sacramento, CA 95819-6090. This essay is based on a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Miami, November 1994.

Reproduced from the Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, Vol. 47, 06-01-1995, pp 35.
Copyright ©1995 by Monthly Review Foundation. All rights reserved.

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