When Richard Nixon was making his second bid for president in 1968 the Civil Rights Act had passed, riots had erupted in cities across the country after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and murder rates had increased 50 percent since 1950.
Race relations were tenuous, at best, and Nixon knew it. Crime control became a surrogate for race control. And every man and woman in America is paying for it, in more ways than one.
The conservative mantra of “tough on crime” worked for Ronald Reagan and won a couple more notable elections. George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis with Willie Horton in 1988. In Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge beat Mark Singel with Reginald McFadden in 1994.
In the wake of “tough on crime,” America has five percent of the world’s population but one-fourth of its prisoners. Nearly one-third of Americans are under correctional control at a yearly cost of $60 billion. Imprisonment has grown 400 percent over the past twenty years, the great majority for non-violent crimes. And two-thirds of criminals are back in jail for similar crimes three years after they are released.
Today, African Americans make up 12.6 percent of the general population and 43 percent of the prison population. Death row is comprised of almost an equal number of blacks and whites.
While the growth of incarceration took many dangerous offenders off the streets, research suggested that it reached a point of diminishing returns, as recidivism rates increased and more than one million nonviolent offenders filled the nation’s prisons. In most states, prisons came to absorb more and more of the criminal justice budget. The result was fewer dollars for policing, community supervision and treatment for mental health and substance abuse.
Meaningful reform will undoubtedly have a positive impact. However, posturing to gain political advantage on important criminal justice issues will have dire consequences -- America needs only look back on the get tough polices of the recent past.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is due out this summer.