Georgia’s Governor: Breaking New Ground in Law-and-Order Demagoguery
So, it used to be that politicians would pair “build more!” talk on prisons with “be very afraid” talk about “criminals.” That combination could be called the “lock ‘em up” mode of “tough-on-crime” politics. The new governor of my home state has apparently hit on a new formula. From his inaugural speech:
Presently, one out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control. It cost about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections. And yet, every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of perpetrators are juveniles.
College students should be concerned about their grades not whether they are going to be mugged on their way home from class. Visitors to our cities should be treated as welcomed guests and protected. Families should not live in fear of gang violence and drive-by shootings. But most of all, our dedicated law enforcement officers must not be targets for criminals. Anyone who harms one of them harms us all, for they embody the Constitutional mandate that government provide us with protection and security.
Breaking the culture of crime and violence is not a task for law enforcement officials alone. Parents must assume more responsibility for their children. Communities must marshal their collective wills; civic and religious organizations must use their influence to set the tone for expected behavior.
For violent and repeat offenders, we will make you pay for your crimes. For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with Day Reporting Centers, Drug, DUI and Mental Health Courts and expanded probation and treatment options. As a State, we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions. It is draining our State Treasury and depleting our workforce.
So, I’m guess I’m glad Deal is using his mini-bully pulpit to point out that the War on Crime costs a lot of money and doesn’t necessarily deliver commensurate benefits. And in a backhanded way, his mini-sermon about “the culture of crime and violence” at least acknowledges that just passing laws and arresting people doesn’t magically make everyone stop doing things you don’t want them to do.
That said, this is not, by any measure, a model of how elected officials should introduce mass incarceration onto the policy agenda. Deal is still trafficking in the same cartoon of The Criminal that we’ve been hearing about from politicians for basically as long as I’ve been alive, he’s just refining it slightly to exclude “offenders who want to change their lives.” This is a nice gesture, but of course it’s also fairly meaningless since “offenders who want to change their lives” aren’t really the hard cases in criminal justice policy! What about drug users who don’t particularly want to stop using? It’s worth noting that Deal’s proposed phalanx of drug courts could well wind up sending more, not less, of them to jail. What about prisoners who don’t particularly want to change their lives but are 90 years old and bedridden? What about 15-year-olds who commit armed robbery and don’t particularly want to stop because they have basically no impulse control or understanding of the world? It seems that in Deal’s world those people should all still be in prison for a very long time. Well, fine, but it’s worth noting that that’s not really a change from the policies that led us to the present state of mass incarceration.
And given that this speech is filled with Scary Characters — “perpetrators,” “juveniles,” muggers, drive-by shooters — I don’t understand how Deal could have thought it would actually convince anyone that we should start dismantling the carceral state. Basically, Deal is saying to the public, “You’re right, there are all these really violent scary criminals running wild, but you know, it costs a lot of money to keep them in prison so maybe we should let some of them out and also, parents need to be stricter with their kids.” Who is going to be convinced by that? After 30 years of being told that prisons are the only way we have to keep violent people from causing mayhem, does Deal really think Georgia voters are now going to say, “Oh, these Day Reporting Centers do sound like a great idea!” Well, no, they’re probably going to say, “Gee, maybe we should cut something else in the budget” or, “Man, as soon as the economy swings back up again I sure hope we can build some more prisons! Juvenile perpetrators are on the loose!”
And after all that it’s worth noting that while Atlanta has been the site of some really scary random homicides in recent years, overall crime appears to be dropping in Georgia. This is not to dismiss the legitimate concerns that people may have for their safety, but simply to wonder whether Deal’s description is really helpful in assuaging those concerns. This speech is an archetypal example of the type of rhetoric that Jonathan Simon has written about in Governing through Crime: It divides the citizenry into essential categories of “criminals” and “victims,” defining the ideal citizen as a crime victim, and enshrining fear as the defining characteristic of contemporary American life. As Simon has observed, the economic and cultural consequences of the politician-perpetuated culture of fear have been wide-ranging:
Think about the costs to schools which spend their time searching for drugs or putting students through various searches and disciplinary procedures, rather than educating them. Think about the costs to businesses of policing their customers and employees to prevent crime rather than producing or delivering the goods and services they actually went into business to do. Think about how miserable an experience air travel has become due to security procedures that cannot begin to protect us against the next innovation in terror, or the wonderful tools of our computer/internet age that stop in their tracks because of invisible security protocols. …
Consider how a less fear based lifestyle in central cities with public transit, nearby parks, and homes in walking distance from schools and businesses can yield lower energy costs, lower health costs (as people walk their way to less obesity) and time freed from commuting that can be spent starting new businesses or raising our children to require less professional intervention. Consider how schools freed from drug testing, locker searches, and crime prevention curriculum could get back to actually educating our children.
When I visit my hometown of Atlanta, I never get the impression that everyone in the city is walking around in cowering fear of violent crime at every waking moment. I do get the impression that Atlanta can be a miserable place to live, though! Here’s why: because inevitably you spend a good part of your day sitting in standstill traffic, and often there’s literally no other way for you to get where you’re going. On that front it’s worth noting that Governor Deal also mentioned the problem of highway congestion as an item on his policy agenda. Of course, part of the reason why metro Atlanta has woefully inadequate public transit is that its suburbs have long blocked meaningful expansion of MARTA, in no small part because of inchoate racialized fears of “urban youth,” stoked by the very type of rhetoric we see Deal using here.