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January 16, 2018

Is "tough-on-crime" no longer a winning political strategy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Daily Beast article authored by Inimai Chettiar and Udi Ofer, which is headlined "The ‘Tough on Crime’ Wave Is Finally Cresting." Here are excerpts:

For decades, politicians competed to see who could push the most draconian criminal justice policies. Jeff Sessions's announcement this month that he would authorize federal prosecutors to go after pot even in states where it is legal seems ripped straight from that playbook.  But the “tough on crime” Attorney General may be in for a surprise.  In 2018, it turns out, demagoguery about crime no longer packs a political punch.  In fact, support for reform may prove to be a sleeper issue in 2018 and 2020.

This would be a big change. Candidates most prominently began to compete on crime in the tumultuous 1960s.  Richard Nixon won with ads showing burning cities and scowling young men, ads crafted by an unknown aide named Roger Ailes.  Ronald Reagan launched a “war on drugs.”  George H.W. Bush won in 1988 with notorious ads telling the story of Willie Horton, who was allowed out of prison under a weekend furlough program.  Bill Clinton in 1992 bragged of his support for the death penalty. These chest-thumping themes were echoed in hundreds of campaigns down the ballot each year....

Over the last decade, a bipartisan movement has arisen to push back and revise criminal justice policy. Throughout 2016 it made real strides. Black Lives Matter and advocates brought national awareness. The Democratic and Republican parties included reducing imprisonment in their platforms — a stark reversal of past policy.  Every major candidate for president — with the exception of Donald Trump — went on the record supporting justice reform.

Then came the startling rise of President Trump. In his inaugural address, he warned of “American carnage” and rampant crime.  His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had killed the bipartisan sentencing reform bill as a senator. Now, at the Justice Department, he is piece-by-piece dismantling his predecessors’ efforts to reduce federal imprisonment rates.  This has chilled the artery of many politicians once eager to support reform efforts in Washington.

For Trump and Sessions, it seemed, it was still 1968. They are waging traditional scare politics.  But something unexpected happened on the way to the backlash.

Lawmakers in blue and red states alike pressed forward with reforms.  In 2017, 19 states passed 57 pieces of bipartisan reform legislation.  Louisiana reduced sentences. Connecticut modernized bail.  Georgia overhauled probation.  Michigan passed an 18-bill package to reduce its prison population.

And in the 2017 elections, candidates won on platforms that proactively embraced justice reform. In Virginia, for example, gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie defined his campaign by running modern day “Willie Horton” ads against Ralph Northam for restoring the right to vote to former prisoners, and branded him as “weak” on MS-13. Voters handed Northam a sizeable win. In deeply conservative Alabama, Doug Jones campaigned on criminal justice reform. Trump repeatedly attacked Doug Jones as “soft on crime.” But Jones beat Roy Moore.

Urban politics have been transformed, too.  District attorneys campaigning on reducing imprisonment are winning across the nation, most recently in Philadelphia.  Justice reform proved a powerful organizing issue among the young and in communities of color.

January 16, 2018 at 10:22 AM | Permalink


The criminal law may become an exotic, rare specialty, if the opiate epidemic continues. It will be like admiralty law, or museum law. Prisons will close. The economy will improve, as security costs diminishes. Lawyers will be laid off by the thousands.

One has to wonder what the hackers want, stealing identities 15 million times a year. It is likely for drugs. Hackers will be eradicated by our Chinese friends' carfentanyl. Lawyers like the new Philadelphia District Attorney will take credit for the drop in crime. Credit will belong to the Chinese, instead. When a criminal passes away, 200 crimes a year do not take place. Several of his offspring are not born, thus preventing each of their 200 crimes a year for the next several decades. The effect of carfentanyl on the crime rate is exponential, not additive.

China is imitating our methods, and will overtake the size of our economy. One of the bad habits they are picking up is to increase the number of lawyers/population. Their crime rate is soaring as a result. I suggest to my college friends, if you want to attend law school, learn the 20,000 character alphabet of Mandarin Chinese. Go to free law school in China and pass the bar exam in Mandarin Chinese.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 16, 2018 3:06:34 PM

Good news, lawyers. A machine can now read a Wikipedia article, and answer questions about it with the same score as a human being. Its score was slightly lower, one day. They worked on it. The next day, its score was slightly higher. The machine was developed by Alibaba, a Chinese equivalent to Amazon or EBay.


Posted by: David Behar | Jan 16, 2018 3:10:12 PM

Sentencing Student:

So this might be a deeply cynical view, but I think this may be a correlation does not equal causation situation. My view of the Northam and Jones wins was more that voters were lashing out at the Trump presidency, and particularly in the case of Roy Moore, lashing out at a highly unacceptable candidate for any office, much less the senate.

It will be interesting to see whether Trump's doom and gloom appeal to voters terrified of crime actually has a real impact moving forward. That voters would care about something like repudiating Trump over fear of crime may prove to be indicative of voters worrying less about crime. But it may just have to do with people voting against Trump and Roy Moore. Anecdotal evidence of horrific crimes seems to be on the rise because of social media so it may not take much for the "crackdown on crime" approach to be a viable one again.

I do think for a 90's style attack on justice reform to be effective it does need to be narrowly tailored. Something like a general attack on the perils of marijuana is probably going to be less effective than it was. But I'm not so confident in the American voting public that something like the Reagan Tokes story couldn't derail a justice reform candidate in the near future.

Posted by: Michael Wilhelm | Jan 16, 2018 3:16:50 PM

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