The Vote Is In: It’s Time to Replace “Tough-on-Crime” with “Jobs-not-Jails”

This week, most election coverage has focused on who to blame for the the huge losses suffered by Democrats and what the implications are for the gains made by Republicans, but one of the most significant moments of the midterms happened in California—the passage of Proposition 47.

The proposition, which won with 58% of the vote, reclassifies nonviolent crimes like drug possession and petty theft as misdemeanors instead of felonies and dedicates the savings on imprisonment towards schools, victim services, and mental health and drug treatment.

This proposition is an example of the kind of “justice reinvestment” initiative that we need nationwide in order to reallocate resources away from mass incarceration and toward education and healthcare. For a long time, California voters have supported the “tough-on-crime” movement, by passing propositions like the three strikes law in 1994. But now, voters are sending the message that being “tough-on-crime” isn’t working, and the rest of the country should follow California’s example.

The “War on Crime” mantra has been in play for decades. After introducing the “War on Poverty” in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Crime” just one year later that would ultimately overshadow and outpace the war on poverty. Fifty years later, national poverty rates have returned to 1964 levels, income inequality has intensified, and the incarceration rate has skyrocketed with little relationship to crime rates. Despite being the world’s leading incarcerator, the United States is less safe than similarly situated countries.

But now, we have an opportunity to change course. The Republican Party has won a majority in the Senate and has increased their power in the House of Representatives. To hold onto that power in 2016 they will aggressively court the minority-majority coalition that elected President Obama. And so, the political landscape is in play. But before we can change course, there are lessons to be learned from how we got here.

The “tough-on-crime” strategy dates back to the first lunch counter sit-ins and civil disobedience of the 1960s. Southern governors, law enforcement officials, and presidential candidates like Barry Goldwater and later President Nixon called for a crackdown on these “agitators” and “criminals” as part of a “war on crime.”

But according to Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson in “The Origins of the Current Conservative Discourse on Law and Order,” the “war on crime” frame was about more than crime. It was, “part of a larger effort…to reorient state policy around social control rather than social welfare.” And over time, politicians sold the idea that welfare programs actually contribute to crime and poverty.  

“Tough-on-crime” rhetoric gave its proponents coded racial language to connect welfare policy with criminality, thus portraying poor people of color as undeserving. For example, it was under President Reagan that the term “welfare queen” became popularized because of how he villainized low-income community members who used government assistance, implying that they were lazy scam artists. Reagan was also the one to popularize the “war on drugs,” pushing the media to increase their coverage of drug-related crimes, thereby legitimizing the government’s need to exert social control. 

Eventually, Democrats adopted the “tough-on-crime” message as well, and it was perhaps George Bush Sr.’s use of the “Willie Horton incident” that most effectively pushed them in that direction. In 1986, when Willie Horton was let out of prison on a weekend work furlough program he fled, kidnapped a couple in Maryland, and raped the woman. Bush Sr. and his supporters used the incident to mobilize rage against crime and blame liberal Democrats like candidate Michael Dukakis.

To avoid Dukakis’ fate Bill Clinton ran a tough-on-crime campaign and once he was in office, created a federal equivalent to California’s three strikes legislation. He signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which set aside $30.2 billion for law enforcement and state prison expansion, and also successfully slashed the financial commitment to welfare programs.

President Obama has largely continued on the path set by his predecessors, even expanding a new front: the detention and deportation of immigrants.  President Obama deported more immigrants than all other previous presidents combined.

For too long, purportedly progressive politicians have diluted their economic and racial justice values for fear of alienating conservative and moderate voters. The results of this year’s midterm elections make clear that that strategy is a sure way for them to lose.

Conservative politicians have long preyed upon the anxiety of their constituents about how changing demographics could cause them to lose political power, framing the problem in urgent terms. In order to defeat this strategy, Democrats need to convey in equally urgent terms that our current system of applying a punishment solution to every social problem has failed, and that the way forward is a jobs-not-jails, books-not-bars, and healthcare-not-handcuffs agenda.

The triumph of progressive values in states across the country illustrate that such an agenda has the traction to succeed. In Oakland, a measure to increase the minimum wage won with 80% of the vote, and in San Francisco, a similar measure won with 76% of the vote. Initiatives favoring greater economic equality passed even in states where conservative politicians have a strong foothold: proposals to increase state-level minimum wages won in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

Voters also expressed support for fairer drug policies, voting to legalize the recreational use of pot in Alaska, Oregon, and in the District of Columbia.

These results illustrate that there is emphatic support from voters for a move towards a caring economy. The very constituencies who have been most harmed by the punishment economy—women and people of color—are the same who delivered the election to Obama (twice). They are also the swing voters who will decide the elections in 2016. All signs indicate that the Republicans are aware of this reality.

Newt Gingrich has spoken out on wasteful corrections spending and Rand Paul on the need to revisit mandatory minimums and to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.

As UC Berkeley Law School senior fellow Barry Krisberg argues, Proposition 47 passed in part because of the broad coalition of forces working in its favor. Proponents ranged from San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to the California Teachers Association to Gingrich and Paul. 

Smart politicians are capitalizing on the public’s realization that the fundamental premises of the “tough-on-crime” movement are false. Most sociological research demonstrates that the severity of punishment does not significantly slow down crime and that welfare spending actually reduces crime. Approximately five million fewer people would be under the poverty line but for mass incarceration.

The way forward is to support candidates who prioritize support for impacted people and communities over punishment. We used to measure a politician’s success based on how “tough-on-crime” they were. Now, commitment to a jobs-not-jails, books-not-bars, healthcare-not-handcuffs agenda must become the new political barometer. The election results make it clear that voters are ready for reform—it’s time for politicians to catch up. 


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