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Tough on Crime: How the United States Packed Its Own Prisons

Tough on Crime: How the United States Packed Its Own Prisons
President Ronald Reagan giving a speech.

The United States might be making a huge mistake with its current policies on mass incarceration. But, the country was not always so tough on crime. It was only in the last 30 years that the United States began seeing such large numbers of people locked up. So, how did the country become so focused on punishment?

The 1960s – Crime Becomes a Spotlight Issue

In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater brought the issue of crime into the election by echoing a growing opinion that the government needed to start intervening to prevent crime.

Politicians began taking stances on crime, with the core point of division being whether social conditions or individuals themselves were fundamentally responsible for criminal activity.

When he was elected in 1965, President Johnson determined that criminals must be punished, telling Congress, “I hope that 1965 will be regarded as the year when this country began in earnest a thorough and effective war against crime.”

Johnson created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which were aimed at assisting law enforcement with deterring crime.

When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he continued this “war on crime,” and blamed crime rates on the leniency of the criminal justice system. He said that the “solution to the crime problem is not the quadrupling of funds for any governmental war on poverty, but more convictions.”

The 1970s – Court Systems Begin to Change

Up until the 1970s, courts were operating under the indeterminate sentencing structure, which gave judges a lot of flexibility to set sentencing and imprisonment time. Additionally, courts used a discretionary parole system, where strong parole boards made decisions on inmate releases.

However, during the mid and late ’70s, states moved toward a determinate sentencing structure, where sentences were pre-determined and the judges did not have so much discretion. Some states created sentencing commissions that set strict guidelines for minimum and maximum sentences, as well as scales for sentencing according to the severity of the offense and history of the criminal.

The ’70s and ’80s also saw a change to the parole board structure. States implemented mandatory parole systems, which weakened the parole boards and governed inmate releases by administrative rules. By 2003, only 16 states had discretionary parole systems. This meant that inmates had less of a chance of earning release and were instead released upon pre-determined administrative regulations. However, prisoners could still reduce their time in prison by earning good-time credits or otherwise working the time off.

The 1980s – Laws Get Tough on Crime

In 1984, Truth in Sentencing laws started getting passed in several states, which required offenders to serve most of their prison sentence, and restricted opportunities for parole and good-time credits. The federal government later offered grants to states that passed TIS legislation, which made the laws widespread.

In the mid ’80s, the war on crime focused its attention on drugs, as drug abuse became an extremely publicized issue. Policies of deterrence, rather than prevention, were applied to drug crimes. Federal funds were pulled from drug treatment and prevention and put toward policing and punishment. By 1985, 78 percent of the funds allocated to the drug problem went to law enforcement while only 22 percent went to treatment and prevention.

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which required harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. For example, a first-time offender caught with five or more grams of cocaine had a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

The 1990s – Tough on Crime Attitude Is Solidified by Both Sides

In 1992, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton wanted to appeal to the public by keeping up with the tough on crime attitude. He supported police efforts and tough penalties for drug offenders. Clinton said that “the simplest and most direct way to restore order in our cities is to put more police on the streets.”

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, established even more federal aid for local law enforcement, offered grants to states willing to adopt TIS laws, set more mandatory minimum penalties, and restricted the federal appeals process for death row inmates.

Republicans then came forward in 1995 with another series of proposals for crime deterrence, calling it the “Contract With America“, which included more TIS laws, mandatory minimums and death penalty provisions. It also loosened restrictions on admission of illegal obtained evidence.

Today – The Effects of the War on Crime

Between 1960 and 2000, the U.S. incarceration rate nearly quadrupled. The United States now has more prisoners than any other country in the world.

This is extremely costly to taxpayers, and inmates are placing pressing burdens on state governments.

It might not have been the tough on crime era alone that caused the increases in mass incarceration, as crime has steadily increased in the United States in the past few decades as well. However, according to research, crime rates can only explain about 16 percent of the increases in incarceration.

So, the tough on crime policies, spurred by politicians, media hype and resulting public opinion, have very likely contributed to today’s rates of mass incarceration and the current number of people locked up in the country.


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