Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Is the War on Crime Nearing Detente?

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In The Nation this week, Sasha Abramsky asks: “Is This the End of the War on Crime?” Abramsky argues that the decline in violent crime in recent years, combined with the current fiscal crisis, has opened up ideological and political space for reform. Here are just a few of the many examples Abramsky recounts:

In Texas a $600 million prison-expansion plan was shelved in 2007 in favor of a $241 million plan expanding community-based drug and alcohol treatment services, after researchers convinced legislators that the latter would lower crime rates more than expanding the state’s penal infrastructure. …

In Kansas legislators approved a large investment in drug treatment programs and services for parolees designed to stop so many offenders from simply cycling back into prison after their release. The result was a drop in Kansas’s prison population significant enough to allow the state to close several facilities.

Michigan recently reformed its prisoner-release process to allow for shorter sentences … . The state closed eight prisons as a result and invested some of the $250 million savings expected to be generated over a five-year period in an expanded network of mental health and job training services, as well as drug treatment programs.

Since I can’t imagine any politician will ever announce that the war on crime is over — surrender not being an option and victory being difficult to define, if not imagine — I think the metaphor of detente may be a helpful way to frame the seeming thaw in the heated tough-on-crime rhetoric of decades past. And detente only goes so far; after decades of a war mindset, permanent disarmament is difficult to achieve, both practically and politically. Now that states have built such a massive carceral infrastructure, which many citizens have come to take for granted, how far can they really go in abandoning it? If the economic climate improves, or crime rates rise, will states simply remobilize? Notably, while state prison populations declined last year for the first time in decades, the federal prison population keeps rising. As Doug Berman points out, it’s not surprising that “that jurisdictions that generally have to balance their budgets saw a decline in incarceration in 2009, while the one jurisdiction that just prints money went in the other direction.” 

In Power and Protest, Cold War historian Jeremi Suri argues that detente was “a profoundly conservative response to internal disorder” that “sacrificed domestic reform for the sake of international stability. … The Cold War became less volatile as a consequence of detente, but it also grew more permanent” (p. 5). Although I am cautiously hopeful that the War on Crime is becoming less volatile, I hope state and especially federal leaders will take the next steps towards making it less permanent: cleaning out our cluttered criminal codes, revisiting draconian sentencing schemes, allowing states to experiment with decriminalization of drugs, reintroducing rehabilitation and restorative justice, especially at the juvenile level.

As Abramsky notes, even though most criminal justice policy is local, the federal government is enormously influential:

[I]t allocates resources directly (by, for example, patrolling the border and exporting the “war on drugs”) and indirectly (by granting money to localities and states to set up antidrug task forces, funding drug and mental health treatment services, and putting more police on the streets). It creates overarching legal parameters within which states must operate (federal drug laws supersede state ones, which means that if California legalizes marijuana, for example, theoretically it would be setting up a conflict with DC). Perhaps most important, the federal government sets the tone for national conversations on crime and delinquency.

Although Abramsky cites some promising reform rhetoric from Attorney General Eric Holder and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, I would prefer to see more than just rhetoric. I also worry that the current moment of detente may be something of an illusion: perhaps the War on Crime is just switching targets from drugs to immigrants, as we have already begun to see with Arizona’s SB 1070 and, at the federal level, in the zealous prosecution of “illegal re-entry” cases and the burgeoning subfield of enforcement known as “crimmigration” (deportations for minor criminal offenses).

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