"Tough on Crime" No Longer the American Mantra?
& Inimai Chettiar, Director, Brennan Center's Justice Program
Politicians over the last quarter-century have held strong to the conventional wisdom that being "tough on crime" will win elections and appease the public's appetite for safety. And for the most part, it seems Americans did feel this way (if you don't think so, just ask Michael Dukakis). To alleviate the public's overblown fear, or even to slake a thirst for retribution, our lawmakers have repeatedly deemed more private acts criminal and doled out harsher punishments for a generation. They selectively enforced these laws against the "feared" Black and brown communities, and in the end gave us a massive, unsustainable prison population unlike anything the world has ever seen.
But the pendulum of public opinion is starting to swing in the other direction. A Pew survey in March found that not only do 73 percent of Americans who have not experienced violent crime think that too many people are behind bars, but they're joined in that opinion by 70 percent of violent crime victims. Further, 88 percent of respondents agree that we have too many low-risk, nonviolent offenders behind bars, and 87 percent support increased access to reentry programs, such as job training.
The vast majority of Americans are ready to end our addiction to incarceration. What Americans want now is common sense and proportionality. Two factors have contributed significantly to the shift in opinion. First, Americans are increasingly aware of our appalling incarceration rate and its racial injustices. We have the largest prison population on the planet; we have 5 percent of the world's people but 25 percent of its prisoners. Our criminal justice system locks up Black and brown people for drug crimes at a far higher rate than their white counterparts – even though white Americans use drugs at a higher rate. Our prison system is one of the largest human rights atrocities in the world.
Second, more Americans know that our incarceration rate is not only egregious but also unnecessary. Social scientists and policymakers have a generation of solid data proving that we can have fewer prisoners and less crime, and showing that unnecessary incarceration can actually increase recidivism. States have proven this over and over. New York did it; between 1999 and 2009, it reduced its prison population by 20 percent and its crime rate fell by 29 percent during that time. Texas did it too; thanks to smart reforms beginning in 2003, prison population growth stalled while its crime rate fell by 13 percent to its lowest level since 1973. These examples are a sample of a larger and growing trend—states and large cities are locking fewer people up, and their communities are getting safer.
Americans are tired of being tough on crime and are ready to be smart about crime. That's good news for lawmakers. It means that they can pass the necessary pretrial, sentencing, drug and parole reforms that this country so desperately needs without the fear of losing their next election. In fact, championing these types of reforms may actually start to win them votes. With the public behind them, we hope lawmakers will take action to finally end our incarceration binge.