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October 25, 2006

Crime, sentencing and politics

With less than two weeks to Election Day, I have been pleasantly surprised that we've not seen much "tough-on-crime" electioneering at the federal level.  A widely reported up-tick in some violent crime this year could have made crime a ripe issue for national politicians.  But this measured and thoughtful speech by AG Gonzales suggests that national leaders are perhaps actively trying to avoid making crime and sentencing a hot political issues at the federal level.

Given the salience of crime as a political issue over the last 30+ years, sociologists and political scientists ought to be looking closely at why the crime issue has generally receded from the national political scene.  Is this a 9/11 echo, which makes everyone view the war on terror as much more important than a war on drugs or other street crime?  Is it the fact that, these days, many of highest-profile criminal bad guys are rich, white executives and politicians?  Are there other social and legal forces in play?

Whatever the story at the federal level, the story at the state level is different.  This morning I saw a political TV ad attacking a state candidate for having a "liberal plan" that would prevent a killer's execution.  And this story from Indiana documents a concerted state GOP effort to make crime a political issue.  Here is a snippet:

House Republicans revealed the latest of their months-long trail of campaign pledges Tuesday when they promised to keep violent offenders in prison for at least 85 percent of their sentences. Indiana law allows inmates to earn "good-time credit" for every day served, which automatically cuts any sentence in half....

Indiana is one of only four states to have a 50-percent good-time requirement. Federal sentences require inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence, and at least 29 other states meet the federally recognized 85 percent rule, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report....

Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner David Donahue told The Journal Gazette in May that there is a cost to changing the system and that taxpayers would have to pony up money to build more jails and prisons.... Bosma had no cost estimate for the initiative nor for any of the other five crime-related promises made Tuesday.... Bosma also had no cumulative cost of other programs and changes he and his colleagues have endorsed in recent months, but he was confident the state could afford them as part of normal revenue growth.

October 25, 2006 at 10:20 AM | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 25, 2006 12:34:11 PM


Politics is the means by which the people in a democracy govern themselves and enact the policies they think are best. The punishment of crime is a policy of the greatest importance. At the state level, it is the single most important function of government. Crime, therefore, should be a political issue. If you think the tough-on-crime approach is misguided, the answer is not to say it should be removed from politics but to make your case to the people.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 25, 2006 3:28:18 PM


I would be moved by your democracy flag-waiving if the "tough-on-crime" crowd would discuss, in honest terms, the costs of getting tough. To use your state as an example, how many more lives might have been saved if all the money put into the death penalty system instead went into cops on the street?

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 25, 2006 3:40:43 PM

I don't think there is any dishonesty in rejecting arguments based on the premise that we should extract two items from the budget and oppose them. If we should fund more cops on the street (and I agree we should), the money to do that should be obtained by cutting the lowest priority item in the total budget. I don't think the death penalty is it, but anyone who thinks so is free to argue that in the marketplace of ideas.

The merits of the above question are really beside the point, though. The point is that in a democratic society elections are the way to resolve disputes of policy and everyone is free to convince the public of his or her point of view. Some may think the people are too stupid to understand, but I give them more credit. I also keep in mind Winston Churchill's comment to the effect that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Government by black-robed Platonic Guardians is one of the others.

Waive the flag? Moi? Heavens forfend. I will, however, proudly wave it.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 25, 2006 4:31:30 PM

Let's take a closer look at this argument.

At the state level, it is the single most important function of government.

Says who? Why not fire and rescue? Don't they save far more lives? Or what about economic development? What if no one had jobs? What would that do to the crime rate? Same with education. It may be the single most REACTIVE function of government, but crime is by no means the most important proactive function.

Crime, therefore, should be a political issue.

And by implication it is the most important political issue. That is false for all the above reasons. For one, due to moral panic and the use of crime as a political football, if it really were the most important political issue, it should not be used and abused as it is. Crime more than anything else is a means to scare the people into a government dependency far greater than the "welfare state." The use of crime as a political weapon is not some "thou shalt" implying one party or the other can solve all the world's problems with more prisons. Such an argument indeed proves how irrelevant crime really is to politics, since it can be a toy.

If you think the tough-on-crime approach is misguided, the answer is not to say it should be removed from politics but to make your case to the people.

Again, moral panics interfere with any logical and common sense approach to crime solutions. The people are so afraid and so fed up because of 24/7 news they are deceived into thinking crime is the most important issue. That severely clouds any right thinking solutions anyone might offer to make their case. You argue that cutting the money from the lowest priority of the budget is the solution. What is that? How do you know that whatever it might be, it hasn't cut the crime rate and we should increase, not decrease the budget for it? That's the problem with this black and white thinking.

Posted by: George | Oct 26, 2006 2:16:39 AM

To a certain extent, it's unfair to use anecdotes, but I will here. Last evening Florida executed a notorious killer. The man's record, prior to those killings, would have justified a long stretch in prison, had a more rational sentencing regime been put in place, and if such a rational sentencing scheme had been put in place, it is likely that 5 completely innocent people would be alive today. This points up just how truly important the criminal justice system is. Some people seem to think that a more enlightened (read "lenient") approach to criminal behavior is more moral and people like me are simply trogolodytes. From this attitude comes a disdain for putting the crime issue in the political arena. But since the release of criminals into society can have serious ramifications, e.g., the killing spree that got the killer the business end of the "big jab", doesn't it make sense that society, have the ultimate say on these matters, subject of course, to the Constitution?

There is a reason that crime became a big political issue--people were sick and tired of entirely preventable acts by recidivist criminals. And, to be more blunt, they were sick and tired of the consequences of the policies of moral preeners who think it enlightened to foist dangerous criminals upon society. Sorry, George, if that's too black and white for you.

Posted by: Sean O'Brien | Oct 26, 2006 6:57:44 AM

Of course society has the ultimate say on these matters, "subject of course, to the Constitution." But that entirely misses the point of the "more enlightened (read 'lenient') approach to criminal behavior." Do you really think anti-death penalty advocates condone heinous murders like Rolling's? Do you really think liberals aren't "sick and tired of entirely preventable acts"? Your solution, the death penalty, is after the fact. It is reactive, too late. You may argue that if Rolling got life without for his first armed robbery these murders could have been prevented. Even if everyone who committed any crime, from drug use and petty theft to armed robbery, any crime, got life without, that would still not prevent these crimes 100%. Right now, as we debate this, there is another Rolling in the making somewhere in the United States. That Rolling's father was an abusive police officer is a good metaphor for the difference in philosophies. Indeed, you argue something like the point of view of Rolling's father:

"Claudia described the relationship between James and his two young sons and her feeble attempts to protect them. She would try to ensure that the boys had already had their dinner before James came home, as he would constantly abuse them for imagined transgressions — they didn't sit properly, or didn't hold their cutlery properly, he even insisted that they breathe a certain way. The children would come to the table in fear if James was at home. Apart from verbal abuse, James would physically punish his children. Sometimes he would punish them with a belt and other times he would make a fist and grind his knuckle into the tops of their heads. Whatever the punishment, he would insist that they not cry out, under threat of further punishment." (From courttv.com)

That "low priority" program you mentioned might be the program that could have intervened and actually prevented the murders. But "that's just the 'He had a bad childhood excuse,'" the tough on crime proponents cry. And so they insist on everyone sitting properly, or holding their cutlery properly, even insisting that they breathe a certain way. In short, the tough on crime advocates insist on rigid laws like Rolling's father did and they expect a different result.

It's true that most people who suffer the abuse that Rolling did will not become criminals let alone heinous murderers, but it is equally as true that most armed robbers will not become heinous murderers either.

So both sides in the debate are interested in prevention. The question is, what works? Since the murder rate is higher in states with the death penalty, maybe, just maybe, Rolling's father's rigid morality is not the answer.

So, you're right, "it's unfair to use anecdotes" but not for the reason you think. These extremes are the foundations of moral panics and they always commit the fallacy of the part equals the whole. They always commit the fallacy of an appeal to the masses, of appeal to authority, of appeal to force, of appeal to pity, of appeal to fear. In the mean time, another Rolling is in the making and the tough on crime crowd could care less. As long as they get the satisfaction of the "big jab" they are happy.

Posted by: George | Oct 26, 2006 3:36:52 PM

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