6 minute read

Political Process and Crime

Practical Politics And The Criminal Process

Prosecutors, politics, and patronage. In the United States, the criminal justice system serves direct practical political purposes as well. Owing to the salience of crime as a public issue and the visibility of their positions, many criminal justice officials use their offices as stepping-stones to higher public office. For example, a great many members of congress and governors have served as criminal prosecutors, and the mayors of a number of large American cities have been police chiefs.

To be effective, political organizations must have the ability to reward activists, and law enforcement and courthouse positions have traditionally been used for this purpose. These positions have been especially valuable because they provide security, high pay, and high prestige and often require little work. Studies of the classic urban political machines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal that various appointments in police forces and courthouses (from bailiffs to high court judges) were effectively used to reward supporters and induce loyalty to the local political organization. Although the expansion of civil service rules and the introduction of "good government" reforms have muted this practice, police and courthouse positions, which in many states are still exempt from merit selection rules, continue to be used as political patronage (Levin; Feeley).

Crime and symbolic politics. Historically in Western democratic societies crime and crime policy have not been a highly salient political issue in electoral politics. However, for a variety of reasons crime does emerge as a major political issue from time to time. In the early twentieth century in the United States, crime emerged as a major concern on the national political agenda, and resulted in the passage of several new federal criminal statutes, including prohibition, the Mann Act (prohibiting "White Slavery") and laws making bank robbery a federal offense, the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), and the establishment of a Presidential crime commission (The Wickersham Commission). In the latter part of the twentieth century, crime again emerged as a salient issue in the United States and throughout Western Europe, and again it had a significant impact on the political process. Judges began to impose longer sentences and legislatures provided for still tougher sentences under determinate sentencing, mandatory minimum sentencing, truth-insentencing, "three-strikes" sentencing laws, and the like. Similarly, courts began cutting back on rules of criminal procedure, making it somewhat easier to secure convictions and impose the death penalty, which was a resurgence in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, after near de facto abolition in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these responses were brought about by a steadily rising crime rate during the 1960s through the 1980s, but the changes were sought by specific groups that were organized to press for them. Since the 1970s in the United States, prison guards and law enforcement organizations have been potent forces in political campaigns, providing substantial sums and endorsements to candidates who support "law and order" proposals. This issue dynamic first emerged on the national political agenda in the 1964 presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, and has periodically resurfaced in presidential races since then. One of the most significant aspects of this development has been the rise of victims' rights organizations. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, victims rights groups formed, often spearheaded by the family member of a victim of a serious crime, and for the first time victims as a group became a powerful political force. This unprecedented development has led to changes in several areas of the criminal law. One of the first such groups to form was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which organized court-watch groups that put pressure on judges to convict those charged with drunk driving (rather than downgrade the charge) and impose stiffer sentences. Others followed in their wake: victims groups sought and obtained the right of victims to address the court at sentencing (the so-called victims' impact statement) and at parole, successfully lobbied legislatures for sexual predator notification law, changes in criminal procedure and rules of evidence to reduce the trauma for child victims and victims of sexual assault to testify in court. And beginning in the 1980s, in the wake of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, groups supporting gun control were energized and combined with law enforcement agencies to successfully lobby for stricter gun control legislation on both the state and national levels.

There are two quite different explanations for the emergence of crime as an electoral issue in the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe. One holds that as crime increased, segments of the electorate and politicians responded by pressing for new policies to address the problems. However, another view holds that the issue is more complicated. Although the fear of crime is widespread and deep-seated, most citizens have limited direct personal experience with crime and the administration of criminal justice. Some argue that crime must be understood in terms of "symbolic politics" (Edelman). They hold that it is the combination of intense concerns coupled with limited direct experience that makes crime such a potent symbolic issue. This can be termed the dramaturgy of law and order. To illustrate, crime is a valuable political opponent. It is a universally despised enemy that has no defenders. At a societal level, crusades against crime serve to reinforce dominant cultural values and social solidarity (Erikson). At an organizational level, the intense emotional arousal that is generated over crime policies can be an important factor in binding voluntary organizations together (Gusfield). This theoretical perspective is nicely illustrated by a careful study of those who supported a particularly tough version of a "three-strikes" law adopted by voters in an initiative that provided for sentences of twenty-five years to life for those convicted of a third felony (Tyler and Boeckman). The authors of this study interviewed a random sample of voters to identify factors that predicted support for or opposition to this law. Support for these dramatically increased sentences, they found, was not associated with a belief that the criminal justice system had been too lenient. Those who thought the system was too harsh were just as likely to support this law as those who thought it was too lenient. Rather, the best predictors of support for the tough new law were those who felt that there was too much racial and ethnic mixing and conflict in society, and those who felt that authority in the family was diminishing. In short, these findings are consistent with the perspective of those who hold that much of politics, and especially the politics of law and order, is symbolic politics in the sense that crime (and other issues) may be convenient "condensation" symbols and proxies for insecurities of a more personal and direct nature (Scheingold). The success of this strategy, or at least the continued salience of crime and crime policy as an important issue in national politics, has led one observer to suggest that modern politics is the practice of "governing through crime."

A more straightforward approach might counter with the observation that crime and public safety emerged as a salient issue on the political agendas of North American and European countries in the late 1960s as crime rates escalated, and that since the mid-1990s it has begun to recede, after about a decade of declining crime rates. Perhaps, but one of the big changes that has occurred since the 1970s is the emergence of organized interest groups—and particularly victims rights groups—which have crime policy as their central if not only focus. In countries where single-interest groups can easily organize and flourish, such as the United States and Great Britain, this may lead to deep and permanent changes.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPolitical Process and Crime - Crime, Morality, And Public Authority, The Politics Of Law Enforcement And Administration, Practical Politics And The Criminal Process