Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
August 9, 2013
The political mantra “tough on crime” is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Politicians of both political persuasions have won countless campaigns, either touting their crime-fighting bona fides or attacking their opponents for being soft on crime.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee for president, introduced campaign operatives to the concept of crime as a divisive, hot-button issue and America has never been the same.
For half a century before 1964, prison population had remained stable at about 110 inmates per 100,000 people. In the nearly 50 years that followed, that number rose to 480 inmates per 100,000 people.
When Richard Nixon was making his second bid for president in 1968 the Civil Rights Act had passed, riots had erupted in cities across the country after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and murder rates had increased 50 percent since 1950.
Race relations were tenuous, at best, and Nixon knew it. Crime control became a surrogate for race control. And every man and woman in America is paying for it, in more ways than one.
Today, African Americans make up 12.6 percent of the general population and 43 percent of the prison population. Death row is comprised of almost an equal number of blacks and whites.
Nixon won in 1968 and 1972 with a crime-fighting agenda. Along the way, more and more African Americans entered the prison system.
Drug laws became more and more onerous and again the law disproportionately affected African Americans. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan introduced draconian mandatory minimum sentences and even harsher drug penalties. Some of those penalties targeted the African American community over other drug-using segments of society. For instance, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher sentences for the use of crack cocaine, popular in predominately African American urban neighborhoods, as opposed to powder cocaine, popular in more affluent suburbs.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush put race front and center in his campaign for president. The GOP ran a commercial depicting intimidating-looking African American men walking in and out a revolving prison door. The commercial assailed Democrat nominee Michael Dukakis for his support of a weekend furlough program that released convicted killer Willie Horton who committed a rape and robbery while on furlough.
In 1992, Bill Clinton leveled the playing field for Democrats on crime. As a candidate for president he left the campaign trail to preside over the execution of an Arkansas man who was so mentally disabled he saved a piece of pie for after his execution.
Since Clinton, every Democrat nominee for president has supported the death penalty in some form. As a result, crime disappeared as an issue in national politics — until now.
Overburdened prisons and resulting costs are unsustainable. Policymakers nationwide spent $70 billion on incarceration in 2012.
How are lawmakers dealing with the issue? The conservatives have Right on Crime; The Counsel of State Governments has the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). Neither deals with the fundamental problems of overcriminalization, disproportionate impact of crime on people of color and a failed war on drugs.
The theory behind JRI is to decrease state prison population and divert the savings to treatment, reentry services, law enforcement initiatives and investing in troubled neighborhoods.
At least 17 states have enacted JRI legislation. Although JRI has been touted as a road map to meaningful reform, there are several states, some often cited as examples of success, that are struggling to reduce prison population.
The most glaring JRI failure is the lack of targeted reinvestment in high incarceration communities, urban neighborhoods densely populated by African Americans, according to a report by the nonprofit research organization Justice Strategies. The report, "Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment," suggests that JRI has not "steered reinvestment toward the communities most weakened by aggressive criminal justice policies."
Policymakers need to act fast to prevent JRI from being a blueprint for the continued marginalization of the African American community.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.