Soft on crime turns out to be smart on crime.
James Alan Fox and Richard Moran
8:00 a.m. EST February 18,
As U.S. repudiates war on drugs, finds innocent men on death
row, states recognize 'lock 'em up' policies fail.
A new report from
the University of Michigan's National Registry of Exonerations has
proclaimed 2015 as a banner year for achieving justice in America. A total
of 149 prisoners including 58 convicted of homicide and five on death row
were released from custody based on exculpatory evidence or the recognition
that theSixth Amendment right to a fair trial had been violated. Apparently,
they were the victims of a system more interested in arrest, prosecution and
incarceration than in justice.
The shame of wrongful conviction has
captured the public's imagination. A ten-part Netflix documentary focusing
on the plight of one Steven Avery from an allegedly overzealous prosecution
quickly went viral. What's more, the issue of innocence made its way into
the Feb. 4 New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate when Sen. Bernie
Sanders argued for abolition of the death penalty based on his firm belief
that "too many innocent people, including minorities, African Americans,
have been executed when they were not guilty."
Many of the hundreds
who have been exonerated and released from prison in the past several
decades were prosecuted during a period of high crime rates and
unprecedented fear. At a time when a no-nonsense, "lock 'em up" criminal
justice policy carried the day, the nation largely turned a blind eye to
injustices. We were far more intent on ensuring public safety than
protecting the rights of the accused. Meanwhile, a booming economy afforded
close to a ten-fold expansion in state and federal prison populations.
Times have changed. Crime rates are at a 50-year low, and, in part due
to runaway correctional expenditures, a majority of states are struggling to
balance their budgets. This dire financial situation has forced politicians
to seek out cost-saving measures, and the low crime rate has allowed them to
do so without much public opposition.
The focus on innocence and
exoneration actually reflects a much broader rethinking of our criminal
justice policies in the context of low crime and limited resources.
When crime rates were rising, the cops were handed a mandate to do whatever
it took to arrest criminals. Now the police are being held accountable like
never before. We are questioning their use of deadly force, and equipping
them with body cameras to monitor their every move.
1990s panic over youth and gang violence had us characterizing juvenile
offenders as "superpredators" who were beyond redemption. The popular slogan
"adult time for adult crime" echoed a "get-tough" approach for punishing
kids. Recently, however, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished mandatory life
sentences for minors. And policy makers have recommitted to the original
philosophy of juvenile justice, prioritizing the needs of young offenders
rather than what punishment is deserved.
The 1990s also saw the rapid
spread of a penal policy patterned after a well-known baseball refrain
"three strikes and you're out." This metaphorical approach to sentencing
felons helped nearly bankrupt many states, especially California where
"three strikes" was most enthusiastically adopted.
thousands of Americans were taken prisoner in the "War on Drugs" declared in
the early 1970s when crime rates soared. Having surrendered this misguided
campaign, the nation is now looking more toward treatment for addicts than
punishment, and releasing nonviolent drug offenders from prison.
Many, if not all, of the recent shifts in philosophy reflect the fact that
we simply can't afford to keep millions of Americans locked behind bars.
Mass incarceration may have contributed marginally to bringing down the
crime rate, but it was hardly a cost- effective strategy. Rehabilitation,
despite its limitations, is significantly cheaper and far more attractive to
cost-conscious lawmakers and their constituents.
For several decades,
ever since Richard Nixon won the White House on a "law and order" platform,
the predominant response to crime was decidedly punitive. Today's proposed
criminal justice reforms from deincarceration to exoneration would have been
condemned as soft on crime. Whether they will prove to be smart on crime, as
reformers have promised, one thing is for sure: They are frugal, and
frugality is definitely in fashion these days.James Alan Fox, a
member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is the Lipman Professor of
Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University. Richard Moran
is professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College.