Political Scientist Traces the Origins of Modern Crime Policy

June 26, 2008 — The Civil Rights Movement made monumental strides toward increasing the rights of black Americans. Ironically, the aftermath of this struggle brought harsh and sweeping changes to crime policy that ultimately would disproportionately affect blacks, according to new research by Vesla Weaver, assistant professor of politics.

Weaver argues that opponents of civil rights strategically shifted their focus following their resounding defeat with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "When conservatives — primarily Southern Democrats — lost on civil rights battles, they began to push a new logic, and that new logic was: 'We need to crack down on crime,'" said Weaver.

Until the late 1960s, most federal crime initiatives were focused around organized crime and gambling. But Weaver contends that conservatives pushed new crime legislation with the purported goal of restoring "law and order," effectively expanding the definition of crime to include urban unrest, civil disorders, and political disturbances.

"There's a lot of nuance to the story," said Weaver. "It's not that conservatives knew what would ultimately pan out. They didn't know that the policies they were passing could eventually lead to a racially disproportionate criminal justice system. … What they were trying to do was reassert agenda control. They had lost massively on the defeat in '64 in the Civil Rights Act, and they needed to reconstitute themselves, they needed to come up with a new causal story, a new political message that would resonate with voters."

Civil rights demonstrations and the subsequent race riots, along with public perception of increasing violent crime, fueled the conservative legislators' "racially sanitized" crime-control message, according to Weaver. Their law-and-order rhetoric was no longer explicitly anti-black or segregationist, but it effectively used existing racial tensions, playing into white fear of crime, riots and social change. As white voters watched rioting and cities burning on their televisions, the liberal message of urban unrest as a complex problem best remedied by social reforms could not compete with the quick fix that conservatives offered with stringent crime laws.

What followed was an unprecedented shift in the criminal justice system. Crime policy initiatives moved from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to the Department of Justice, previously a small agency. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 was passed, establishing the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. This well-funded new agency was set up to administer billions of dollars to states and localities with the specific purpose of fighting crime.

Weaver traces a series of harsh policy changes back to the Safe Streets Act. Her research shows that every single state during this time passed mandatory minimum penalty laws, habitual offender laws and sentence enhancements. Criminal justice moved from indeterminate to determinate — or fixed — sentencing, which also had the effect of pulling up the penalty structure and pulling up the minimum penalties, Weaver said. The death penalty was also reinstated during this time.

The massive infusion of funds to ramp up local law enforcement likely increased official crime rates as measured by the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, despite victimization surveys showing crime as stable during this period. The grants improved law enforcement, which in turn increased victim willingness to report crime.

"It's not coincidental that as the official crime rate is increasing, you are also getting an increase of local law enforcement agencies that are reporting," noted Weaver.

Eventually the riots subsided, but punitive crime policies and attitudes about crime and race remained. The federal role in crime control was institutionalized, laying the groundwork for the War on Drugs and its mandatory minimum sentences, which dramatically increased the prison population during the last few decades and have been widely criticized for being discriminatory.

Today, the U.S. is the world leader in terms of its per capita incarceration rates. A recent report by the Pew Center on the States estimates that one of every 100 adults is imprisoned. A large proportion of these inmates are nonviolent offenders, and the most recent U.S. census data indicates that even though black Americans make up just over 12 percent of the population, they comprise nearly half of those incarcerated.

Weaver's research provides important historical context for these complex problems and fills a gap in the literature, because political scientists and even criminologists haven't investigated the political origins of crime policy before.

"It really is an important story to tell in understanding how we've arrived at being the leading country in the world in incarceration," she said.

Weaver expects her book on this research, "Frontlash: Race and the Transformation of American Criminal Policy and Politics," to be available in 2010.

— By Melissa Maki