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Falling Crime Rates

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If the 2008 recession provides the motivation for reducing the overall costs of the penal system, the decade-long drop in crime rates has enabled that conversation to take place. Broadly speaking, crime rates across the country have declined by 35 to 40 percent in the 1990s, led by a quite remarkable decline in New York City of more than 70 percent. Crime rates continued their relatively remarkable declines into and through the 2000s. In 2010, violent crime hit its lowest rate in forty years—in other words, violent crime rates across the United States are now generally lower than they were when the Punishment Imperative was launched. As we entered 2012, cities across the country were still reporting record declines in crime. In Los Angeles, for example, the crime rate hit its lowest level since 1952. Other large cities, including Boston, Chicago, and Dallas, also continue to report declining, and in some cases record low, levels of crime—particularly violent crime. To be sure, the drop in crime has not been uniform across all places. Some cities and states have been much slower to experience these changes or have experienced more moderate declines. But these fluctuating local experiences cannot deflect the major point: partly as a result of falling crime rates, crime has fallen off the main list of concerns Americans express in public opinion polls. And with crime out of the public mind, a window of opportunity for real policy reform has now presented itself. The most remarkable illustration of this new state of affairs comes from the so-called red states (Georgia, Mississippi, Kansas, South Carolina, Texas, etc.), where tough crime policy has been a mainstay of political life for decades. These states have capitalized on the lack of angst about crime in the public mind to enact relatively sweeping sentencing and prison-reform initiatives.

What this means is that the politics of crime is, to an extent not seen for a generation, on the back burner. Exceptions occur when significant criminal events hit the front pages of newspapers,  and in cities where violence remains high, crime talk among political aspirants is significant. But there is no longer the overwhelming sense that a label of “soft on crime” is a mortal political liability.

The waning of crime from the political scene should not surprise us. There has been a gradual shift in this direction in national politics for a while. Bill Clinton de-toothed the issue with a range of policies that positioned him and his party as undeniably “tough on crime”: COPS funding, truth-in-sentencing legislation, and boot camps are representative examples. Indeed, many of the policies that have since served to make a prisoner’s return to the community all the more difficult (including housing and welfare restrictions that will be described more fully in chapter 4) were Clinton-era policies. Through these and other initiatives, Clinton was able to demonstrate that Democrats could be just as tough on crime as their Republican counterparts. While some of these Clinton initiatives have produced policy debacles from which states are still trying to recover, they were undeniably political winners. In the several presidential elections since Clinton v. Bush (1992), crime and public safety have received barely a mention in the campaign discourse. In the most recent 2012 election season, crime made an appearance only once during the presidential debates and that came during the “town hall” style debate when an undecided voter from the audience asked both Obama and Romney to address whether they supported an assault weapons ban. Crime and crime control are currently not priority issues for the American public and have not been for some time.

All of this may change, of course, if crime rates start to rise again. And undoubtedly there is no political vaccination against the problems of crime and public safety. But what has seemed to be a political truism, what Jonathon Simon labels “governing through crime,” no longer seems as unflinchingly true. And even in the face of difficult criminal statistics and those random events that always seem to come along, the political reality is far more nuanced today than it has been for a generation. A main reason is the long, steady, and national drop in crime.

Reentry as a Concept

The symbolic power of the felon has also changed. Willie Horton remains one of the organizing stories in contemporary crime politics, and George H. W. Bush used visual images of the furloughed felon, a black-skinned repeat violent offender, to successfully chain his election opponent (Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis) with racially provocative dead weight. One consequence of this political event is that we came to connect the fear of personal safety with the image of the violent felon whose black skin marked him as dangerous.

It is ironic, then, that Bush’s son, George W. Bush, put policies in place to soften this collective mindset. His landmark legislative effort to build a new foundation for people returning to the community from prison— the Second Chance Act—provided a new fiscal and programmatic infrastructure of services and support for people returning to the communities from prison. But it did more than that. It helped give standing to a new way to refer to the process of coming back from prison: reentry.

The production of the idea of “reentry” was a masterstroke of conceptual change. It reflects a nearly complete turn-around in the visualization of the problem. No longer do we refer to those people as “felons” or “parolees.” They are not seen as fixed entities defined by their past, lawbreaking acts. They are instead to be seen as people in motion, people undergoing change—going through a process. They are “in reentry.” The term suggests that what these people face is a tough transition, a process that requires them to change the way they relate to the world and to circumstances that will be different later on than they are today. The connotations of “reentry” are ever so preferable to what reformers had to work with when the dominant public idea was Willie Horton and the many dozens of similar images on the public mind. Reentry is more subtle, more dynamic, and opens the door to the idea of transition and, ultimately, redemption.

While the Second Chance Act and the rhetoric surrounding it were a central source of the emerging power of “reentry,” this was not solely the work of George W. Bush. Several distinguished scholars, most notably Jeremy Travis (then director of the National Institute of Justice and now president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice) and Joan Petersilia (of Stanford Law School) made reentry the core concern of their research, writing noteworthy books on the topic. Research organizations, like the Urban Institute, made prisoner reentry one of their focal issues. The public organizations associated with this work, the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) and the America Correctional Association (ACA), eagerly adopted the terminology of reentry in day-to-day practice, and mayors and governors opened up “Offices of Reentry.”

As often happens, in the end this simple change in terminology came to stand for a profound shift in thinking. Where we once saw “ex-felons and parolees” as problem people who need to be “controlled” in order for us to be protected, we came to see “people in reentry” as those who deserve a “second chance” and require support and services in order to “succeed.” The public mind shifted in subtle ways from the pessimistic problem of “dangerous classes” to a more hopeful idea of “potentially productive fellow citizens.” The power of this shift can be overstated, of course, but neither should it be underestimated. And the fact that it could happen is more evidence that the Punishment Imperative has run its course.


Finally, it is becoming more widely accepted that the grand penal experiment has produced, at best, disappointing results. As our reviews in chapters 5 and 6 will demonstrate, there has been a substantial body of research on the main programs and strategies of the get-tough movement, and they have, with only isolated exceptions, been found wanting. Just as significantly, the unintended consequences of these approaches have become considerably clearer as evidence mounts about the problems created by large penal populations concentrated among minority populations.

The availability of this growing body of evidence—and the dearth of contradictory studies—has probably not been a definitive force in the waning of the Punishment Imperative, but it has had an important role. If the drop in crime made the experiment’s end possible, and the fiscal crisis made it necessary, then the burgeoning evidence for its failure has made it reasonable. As we will show in chapter 3, grand social experiments develop their own “knowledge,” in the sense that a shared public reality undergirds the energy for the social movement. With regard to the Punishment Imperative, this body of critical studies, now more widely disseminated among the intellectual, opinion-leading public, means that a fledgling foundation is growing for a wholesale rethinking of the idea.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the Punishment Imperative was in its heyday, what we “knew” about penal policy could fairly be summarized as follows: (1) rehabilitation programs do not work, (2) a small number of highly active law violators are responsible for most crime, (3) the odds of these active offenders being caught and punished are too small, and (4) prisons prevent crime through incapacitation. These were the empirical foundations for the Punishment Imperative, and by the 1980s, they were widely accepted as demonstrably true statements about our penal system, shaping the reforms of the era.

The new evidence—facts and studies that have helped bring about the end of the Punishment Imperative—do not so much contradict these “truths” as they replace them with a different set of more nuanced “truths.” The motivating data for new penological thinking stress a different set of points: (1) carefully designed and implemented correctional strategies can result in significant reductions in rates of recidivism; (2) the growth in the penal system, especially prisons, has resulted in a series of collateral problems that produce inequality and reproduce injustice in ways that are inconsistent with sound democratic policy; (3) prison populations can be reduced without harming public safety; and (4) the general public supports a penal system that provides opportunities for people who are convicted of crimes to reform and return to society as productive citizens.

Along with this new factual foundation for action has come, predictably, a new set of policies to reflect them. Where once policy reform had to meet a criterion of “toughness,” today the new guiding phrase is “evidence-based.” Policymakers are asked to articulate the empirical foundation for the solutions they offer, which shifts the burden of proof from the heated threshold of harshness to a much cooler, more nuanced foundation of an evidence base. This shift has assigned a premium to programmatic thinking, and in place of legislative action we now see practical program strategies occupying the center of the debate. Ideas that reduce costs, increase rates of success, and support the reform of people who break the law now have an advantage over other ideas, and the shift in the evidentiary foundation of corrections is a key reason this is true.

The Argument of This Book

This book then is about an American idea that took root in the 1970s, rose to dominate discourse and practice through the 1980s and 1990s, and has, as we enter the second decade of the new century, shown distinct signs of having run its course. In the chapters that follow, we explore the dynamics of that major American idea, which we call a grand social experiment in punishment. We describe the sources of this experiment, its main elements, and its most important consequences. If we are right in our argument, then we truly find ourselves at one of those rare, momentous times in history, for after more than a generation of unremittingly punitive penal policy, we have now arrived at a new threshold of what will be normal for the U.S. penal system.

Todd R. Clear is Dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. He is the author of Imprisoning Communities and What Is Community Justice? and the founding editor of the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

Natasha A. Frost is Associate Dean and Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Her books include The Punitive State and Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice Policy.

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