Further Thoughts on the Politics and Policy of Law and Order

by Reihan Salam

A number of friends have observed that Mike Konczal’s essay on law and order, which we discussed in this space yesterday, doesn’t devote sustained attention to the explosion in violent crime rates that began in the 1960s, in stark contrast to Christopher Glazek’s n + 1 essay ”Raise the Crime Rate” and Glenn Loury’s Race, Incarceration, and American Values. Loury, for example, opens an essay (which formed the foundation of the aforementioned essay collection) on race and criminal justice with the following observation:

The early 1990s were the age of drive-by shootings, drug deals gone bad, crack cocaine, and gangsta rap. Between 1960 and 1990, the annual number of murders in New Haven rose from six to 31, the number of rapes from four to 168, the number of robberies from 16 to 1,784—all this while the city’s population declined by 14 percent. Crime was concentrated in central cities: in 1990, two fifths of Pennsylvania’s violent crimes were committed in Philadelphia, home to one seventh of the state’s population. The subject of crime dominated American domestic-policy debates.

Most observers at the time expected things to get worse. Consulting demographic tables and extrapolating trends, scholars and pundits warned the public to prepare for an onslaught, and for a new kind of criminal—the anomic, vicious, irreligious, amoral juvenile “super-predator.” In 1996, one academic commentator predicted a “bloodbath” of juvenile homicides in 2005.

And so we prepared. Stoked by fear and political opportunism, but also by the need to address a very real social problem, we threw lots of people in jail, and when the old prisons were filled we built new ones. [Emphasis added]

This serves as a reminder that the policy shift did not occur in a vacuum. Just as those nostalgic for Keynesian social democracy tend to neglect the fact that stagflation raised serious questions about its viability, a point Scott Sumner succinctly made in his essay on “The Unacknowledged Success of Neoliberalism,” it is worth remembering that the policy status quo that existed before the sharp increase in violent crime was widely considered inadequate. Gabriel Rossman shared the following thoughts:

The specific ways we responded may have been shaped by intellectuals/realignments, and our responses may themselves create further problems. But that’s not to say that there weren’t real problems with the old regime that motivated reform. Where Konczal is right (and Loury is good on this) is that there was a question of how we responded to the problem. In either James March’s “garbage can” or Swidler’s “tool kit” model of action, you don’t have people making radical changes just because they seem like a good idea. Rather, some problem comes up and then a policy entrepreneur gets to pitch the idea. So intellectuals and such matter, but only when there’s an opening.

About the most you can say for Konczal’s argument is that these ideas were a necessary but not sufficient condition for mass incarceration, with the ideas requiring the contingency of a crime wave. Conversely, a fifteen year relative lull in crime and a state budget crisis are the kinds of conditions that will allow policymakers to take the anti-mass incarceration people seriously. If we still had crack there would be absolutely no chance for the anti-prison movement to get the serious hearing that it’s beginning to have.

Gabriel also notes that the case for three-strikes policies rested primarily on incapacitation rather than deterrence, which suggests that Gary Becker’s work was not centrally important.