Four More Years: What a Second Bush Term will do for Crime Policies



I’m not as shocked as I thought I would be, just more depressed since I will have to look at his face again and hear his voice and read about him in newspapers and on the Internet.  Oh well.  As I sit drinking my morning coffee on the day after the morning after, I ponder what will happen as far as crime policies are concerned and the first thing that comes to mind is that nothing much different will happen.  This may sound surprising so let me explain.

            I got into the academic world as a sociologist with a keen interest in crime and justice when Richard Nixon was in office.  In fact, I was a graduate student when Watergate broke.  I remember very clearly reading about the conservative turn crime policies were starting to take at that time.  Remember that Nixon was elected in 1968 on a “law and order” platform.  We had just gone through one of the most turbulent decades in American history in the 1960s.  In the middle of it all came President Johnson’s Task Force reports on crime and justice. Called the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, it was created in the wake of the rioting in many urban areas between 1965 and 1967.  There were several individual “task force” reports, such as the police, corrections and juvenile delinquency.  Those that wrote papers for specific task force reports were among the most respected academics and legal experts and many had called for significant changes in criminal justice policies.  Some had a “liberal” orientation, but there was a conservative side as well.

            What stands out in my mind was the following statement from the Task Force Report: Science and Technology.  In this report the following was written:


More than 200,000 scientists and engineers have applied themselves to solving military problems and hundreds of thousands more to innovation in other areas of modern life, but only a handful are working to control the crimes that injure or frighten millions of Americans each year.  Yet the two communities have much to offer each other: Science and technology is a valuable source of knowledge and techniques for combating crime; the criminal justice system represents a vast area of challenging problems.


This was printed in 1967.  Note the wording in this quote.  To me it was a clarion call to use the available technology and scientific expertise to solve the problem of crime. You might think that this would include exploring methods of addressing some of the major causes of crime.  While it is true that this began to happen with all sorts of “rehabilitation” techniques, especially within the correctional system, it soon became evident that a more conservative agenda was already at work. 

            Writing about this at the time was a criminologist by the name of Richard Quinney, who was just emerging as one of the relatively few voices on the left of the political spectrum in my field.  In his book Critique of Legal Order (originally published in 1974 and re-issued by Transaction Books in 2002), he noted that President Johnson’s commission was established, in Johnson’s words, because “we must arrest and reverse the trend toward lawlessness” because “crime has become a malignant enemy in America’s midst.”   A “war on crime” was thus launched.

            Johnson tried to please both conservatives and liberals with the composition of the various task forces (some academics mixed in with various legal experts and politicians, such as Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Kingman Brewster, President of Yale University), those who dominated the commission and guided its conclusions was mostly conservative men.  In fact, Quinney’s analysis of the backgrounds of the 19 commission members showed that 18 held important domestic government positions and 10 held important foreign policy positions.  Over half (12) had key business and corporate connections and almost half (9 members) held important posts in both domestic and foreign policy positions plus business and corporate positions.  In short, concluded Quinney, these were among the elite of society.

            Likewise with the composition of another important commission of the time, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.  Despite the fact that there were many important academics on this particular commission who stressed getting to some of the root causes of violence, their voices were co-opted by the overall conservative approach, reflected in one of the major conclusions which reads as follows:  “Violence is the breakdown of social order.  Social order is maintained, and violence is prevented, by the effective functioning of society’s primary legal, political and social institutions, including, among others, the agencies of law enforcement.” 

            Among other things, the government began to pass rather repressive legislation, such as the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968 (calling for harsh punishments, “preventive detention” and wiretaps, among other things) and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) which began to provide funding to various law enforcement agencies around the country and, more importantly, to various colleges and universities to help established degree programs in “criminal justice.”  The bulk of these college programs began to stress “crime control” and the “administration of justice” with courses centering around the study of various criminal justice agencies (police, courts and corrections) with an emphasis on understanding their operations and how academics can improve their efficiency at “crime control.”

            Throughout the President’s Commission reports the emphasis was on improving the “efficiency” and “professionalism” of the criminal justice system, especially the police.  One critic wrote in 1970 that “professionalism of the police means exactly what it does in the Army: a fascination with technique and modern equipment, a de-politization of the department, a readiness to carry out orders from above.”     

            If we look at the criminal justice system in 1968, when Nixon took office, and compare it to today, there have been many changes.  Most of these changes are in appearance only, rather than in results.  It may come as a surprise to most people that, in spite of a 2000% increase in criminal justice expenditures since that time, the overall crime rate in 2002 (latest figures available) was actually 22% higher than it was in 1968 (with some ups and downs in between).  The rate of violent crime in 2002 was 66% higher than 1968.  Further, in spite of all the modern technology available to the police the percentage of crimes known to the police that are “cleared by an arrest” is about the same (roughly 20%).  Also, the incarceration rate is more than 500% higher today than in 1968, while executions have skyrocketed since 1968.  The public’s fear of crime remains high, despite all the money spent and the technology invented.

            Richard Nixon ran on a “war on crime” platform, while George W. Bush ran on a “war on terrorism” platform.  Can things get worse in the next four years?  Yes they can.  Will our approach to crime change? It is not likely.