Charles Lane has this new Washington Post commentary that serves as a reminder of the reality that criminal justice reformers always need to keep an eye on crime trends. The headline captures the pieces themes: “The declining violent crime rate has been a win for criminal justice reform. A reversal would be a loss.” Here are excerpts:
Since 1994, Americans have grown less hawkish on law enforcement: Support for “tough” measures — such as the death penalty or mandatory minimums — has fallen to levels not seen in almost 50 years, according to an innovative index of “punitive sentiment” first published in 2013 by political scientist Mark D. Ramirez of Arizona State University.
For several years, in fact, U.S. public opinion has been receptive to new approaches based less on policing and incarceration, and more on social services and rehabilitation. In 2016, only 45 percent of Americans considered crime policy “not tough enough,” according to Gallup. Public reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May simply accelerated the preexisting trend.
And why is the public less punitive? This brings us to the second lesson of recent history: Punitive sentiment tends to move in tandem with the actual level of crime. Public support for harsh measures rose with violent crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s, then came down as the violent crime rate declined over the past quarter-century.
Ramirez identifies political leadership as a key variable: Punitive sentiment grew in the ’70s and ’80s as part of a broader racial backlash, including demonization of alleged black offenders, that white conservative politicians deliberately stoked.
Also, the public generally tends to believe the worst about crime, usually telling pollsters that it is growing even when official data show the opposite….
We may be experiencing a real-world test of these dynamics right now, in the sense that President Trump came to office railing against crime as if nothing had changed since the 1980s, when he took out newspaper ads decrying “roving bands of wild criminals” and calling for society to “unshackle” cops “from the constant chant of ‘police brutality.’ ”
Yet punitive sentiment kept on moving down during Trump’s presidency, along with the violent crime rate. (Ramirez’s 2013 article used opinion poll data collected between 1951 and 2006. In an email, he supplied an update showing trends through 2019.) In backhanded acknowledgment of this, Trump leavens his calls for shooting rioters and jailing statue-topplers with boasting about his signature on the First Step Act, which reformed federal sentencing and modestly reduced incarceration.
An important point for reform is to deny Trump and other opponents any basis — either in rhetoric or in reality — for reigniting fear of crime…. It is also why the recent upsurge in shooting deaths in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis is such an urgent issue, in human terms but also politically. Trump is already trying to exploit it.
The past two-plus decades of declining violent crime was one of the best things that ever happened for the cause of criminal justice reform. A reversal of that progress could be one of the worst.