What's Left? Crime Control, Society and the Left's Responses

-by Bobbie Stein


The issue of crime control and what we as a society should do about it is completely overwhelming. It is a challenge to begin to discuss this highly emotional topic even in the broadest of terms. But add to the discussion a progressive/leftist perspective and you will have many people running for the door.

It is important to get away from mythic figures and crime mythology, in general. We must begin a dialogue to examine why progressive voices got somehow lost in the crime debate and how we can engage the right on this ground. Although the left should not lose sight of the ultimate goal -- fundamental social change-- the left must set realistic short term goals that deal more directly with the social realities of crime. The impact of crime falls most heavily on poor and minority communities. We must move toward a grass roots activism that will make a genuine difference in our neighborhoods and change how America thinks about crime and the meaning of a safe society.


We live in a fearful society. One that is obsessed with crime. Crime is never far from our consciousness. Surely, the media and politicians have seen to that. How is it, though, that the conservatives have achieved an ideological monopoly on the issues of crime and crime control?

It would seem that the right's success in this regard has much to do with their giving voice to the legitimate fears that people have about violent crime. Something that the left has yet to embrace.

During the 1950's and 60's, there was a broadly liberal understanding of crime in this country. Even President Johnson's 1966 Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recognized crime as a "social" problem.1 The Commission announced that if crime was to be significantly reduced it needed to be prevented before it happened "by assuring all Americans a stake in benefits and responsibilities of American Life."2

The late 1960's and early 70's have been recognized as a golden age for radical criminologists.3 The critiques of that time analyzed ways in which the criminal justice system works to maintain social control of the poor and racial minorities. They exposed the materialist underpinnings of crime control policies and emphasized the political nature of the law and how the system fosters internalization of capitalist values.

Radical criminology of the time, however, tended to romanticize, even glorify the criminal.4 Some radical criminologists would not participate in the discussion of crime control at all, arguing that problems of crime could not be solved within the capitalist system. Many on the left took too simplistic a view of crime, arguing that "after the revolution," in a socialist society, crime would no longer exist.

The left tended to redefine crime in terms of harm and expanded the definition to cover all wrongs, and indeed, all that might have been objectionable to radical thinkers. For example, human exploitation, racism, and war all became crimes. Although such an analysis has allure and may have a place in a theoretical context, it must be recognized that adopting such a rigid approach serves to stifle debate of the more pressing issues of what is to be done about crime in our communities now.

In short, the left did not address the reality of fear and the public's perception of crime. Instead everything was blamed on the State and on poverty. This liberal view of crime and its causes was undermined by the apparent paradox of crime in the 60's. Crime rates were rising despite the fact that unemployment was falling and incomes were rising. Government resources were being expended on social programs for the disadvantaged. If the liberal thinkers were correct, the conservative argument went, these conditions should have caused a decrease in crime.

Conservative criminologists gained a stronghold and dominated American thinking by the mid 1970's. Since liberal theories were floundering it was easy for conservatives to reject liberal social explanations for causes of crime and appropriate remedies. The focus quickly shifted from rehabilitation to retribution.5 People began to blame the rising crime rates on what they perceived to be the coddling of criminals in a too lenient criminal justice system. Victims felt that their concerns were ignored while the Warren Court established a set of basic procedural protections limiting police powers and created modest levels of fairness and equality for criminal defendants.

The notion that societal problems were the cause of crime was seen as an excuse that only served to erode any sense of individual responsibility. This atmosphere set the stage for conservative scholars such as, then Harvard professor, James Q. Wilson, who believes in the essentially evil nature of human beings. Wilson's answer to crime is, quite simply, more incarceration.6

Victims and conservatives were not, and are not now, interested in a left analysis of how white collar crime is worse than street crime. People are afraid. And while it is true that in sheer numbers, white collar crime is much more expensive than street crime --according to Justice Department statistics, all personal crimes and household crimes cost approximately $19.1 billion in 1991 compared to corporate crime which cost between $130- 472 Billion (7-25 times more) -- and that more people die from pollution than from homicide, unmitigated corporate crime does not excuse violent crime.

It is also undeniably true that our criminal justice system is a racist one and that police abuse is all too common an occurrence. Discrimination exists against African Americans at nearly every stage of the criminal process. Minority youth are more likely to be arrested than their white peers. A 1996 study in California showed that once arrested, whites have their charges reduced more often than African Americans and Latinos, and that white offenders tend to get community service related rehabilitation twice as often as African Americans.7

Another example of institutional racism can be found in sentencing disparity. Law enforcement makes no secret of its choice to target crack cocaine over the use and sales of powder cocaine. In federal law, possession of of five grams of crack results in a mandatory five year minimum prison sentence while five grams of powder cocaine has no minimum sentence. The end result is that a disproportionate number of poor African American men and women go to prison while middle class white people remain free.

Additionally, once released from prison, a disproportionate number of African Americans lose their right to vote as a consequence of suffering a felony conviction. According to a recent report by two non-profit agencies, Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, nationwide, 1.4 million African American men - 13 percent of black men - cannot vote because of their criminal records.

Although the social construct of crime is infected by institutional racism, and tainted by misconceptions and media lies, there is no denying that crime itself is real. And although serious crime fell in the U.S. for the 7th year in a row,8 statistics such as this do little, if anything, to allay people's fear.

The left makes the same mistake as the right in discussing crime as if it were one dimensional. The fact is, some behavior, such as a random act of violence, warrants a person's removal from society. This failure of the left to acknowledge and distinguish between this type of behavior from other types of behavior that may be prompted by basic survival needs or issues of substance abuse has allowed the right to catalog all crime in the same manner and has made tough on crime policies an ever popular platform for politicians.9


Except for feminists, who were among the first group of victim's to make a difference in the laws regarding rape and domestic violence, the left really abandoned the issue of victim's rights and alienated groups who should have been their natural constituents.

The origins of the victim's rights movement can be traced to the 1940's and 50's when there were proposals for victim's compensation programs being debated internationally.10 This was a "liberal" social welfare measure. In 1963, California became the first American state to provide crime victims with compensation. This was in line with then prevailing attitudes that crime was a social problem. This view was soon overshadowed by conservative arguments blaming crime on the courts, inadequate punishment, and on the essentially wicked nature of people.

This early compensation measure was the extent of any remotely liberal participation in the debate of victim's rights. In the 1970's victims' rights groups began to organize and flourished in the 1980's.

The rise of the victims' rights movement gave government officials, law enforcement, and legislators an opportunity to exploit the public's legitimate fear of crime for partisan political purposes. Everyone who runs for office today must demonstrate their toughness on crime. Politicians peddle crime as a means of gaining support from victims' groups, many of which have become powerful constituencies. In the 1990's it is the common rhetoric of restitution and revenge that prevails.


It is a mistake to minimize the way people feel about and experience crime. By the same token, we must dispel the media mythology surrounding issues of crime and analyze the true facts in an effort to find solutions. Newspapers and television news shows are quick to bombard the public with sensational stories of crime.11 Network television news shows broadcast four times as many crime stories in 1995 than they did in 1991.12 But crime is just not as prevalent as conservative forces would have us believe.

The nation's overall crime rate in 1998 fell for the seventh consecutive year, with violent crimes such as robberies and murders showing the sharpest decline. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program, there has never been such a prolonged period of declining crime since they began collecting crime data in 1930. Still there exists a schism between statistical trends on crime and the perceptions of a nervous public.13

Ironically, despite the downward trend of violent crime, prisons are literally bursting at the seams. American prisons now hold a record number of 1.8 million American adults. More money is spent on prisons and police than on education.

There have been six major crime bills passed by Congress since 1968 and signed into laws by presidents. Each one has carried with it longer prison sentences for more types of crime. They have shaped crime policy by their promise of money to states who ascribe to the national government's agenda. For instance, the 1994 Federal Crime Bill provided that states could receive part of the 9.7 Billion dollars set aside for new prison construction only if it required inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences before being paroled.

At least 600 new prisons have been built in this country since 1980. Between 1980 and 1992 we spent $3.8 Billion on prison construction. Prosecutors, too, have more money than ever. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice Prosecutor's budget quadrupled from 1980 to 1992 while Public Defender Offices continue to suffer from lack of funding.


Social welfare and educational programs have been pillaged so that more money can be pumped into prisons and police protection. There is no longer even a pretense of rehabilitation in our system of "justice." What is really happening is a wholesale warehousing of entire segments of society. We, as a society, have moved even beyond retribution - to a new system of total incapacitation. The idea is to get rid of the "undesirables". Take the keys and lock them up...and then... throw away the keys. (And don't worry about what might happen to them once people are in prison.)

The fastest growing segment of the nation's prison population is women, with an increase of more than 500% since 1980. Seventy eight percent of those are African American women. The rate of incarceration for African American men is six times greater than for white men. One third of all African American men between the ages of 20 and 30 years old in this country are under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day. The majority of prisoners come from poverty and lack formal education.14

And what are all these people in prison for? Only one in ten arrests is for a violent crime. Three in one hundred are for violent crimes which resulted in injury. In California, 80% of crimes triggering three strike sentences were for non-violent offenses.

In the federal system, drug offenders constitute 60% of the prison population. From 1990 to 1996, 72% of the growth in the federal system was due to drugs.15 In state prisons and local jails, the figure is 22%. These numbers are triple the rate of fifteen years ago.


Progressives need to reassert themselves into the discussion of crime and "to make community safety a call not for "law and order" and vigilantism but for grass-roots activism, for constructing democratic institutions in neighborhoods and cities that can keep young people from crime and make a genuine difference to those who may be crime victims."16

There are many theories about the causes of crime and violent behavior and many more opinions about each of those theories.17 A discussion of the causes of crime is beyond the scope of this article. There are certain empirical realities, however, that suggest at least some solutions and can help us to move toward a more meaningful approach to crime control and closer to fundamental social change.

  • Research shows that children from low income families who are placed in head start type programs have lower rates of criminality later.
  • Children who are malnourished are more likely to engage in high risk behavior later.
  • A disproportionate amount of violent street crime is found in areas with lowest incomes and most desperate living conditions.
  • The American prison population and the number of people living in poverty have both grown since the 1980's.
  • Studies show that discrimination exists against African Americans in nearly every stage of criminal proceedings.
  • Prisoners are raw material for the ever expanding prison industry. Private prisons have become big business with millions of dollars funneled into prisons by big corporations. Corporate America, therefore, has a vested interest in keeping people behind bars.18

Peoples' basic desire for safety must be incorporated into any meaningful discussion of crime. We need to look at long term and short term solutions. The left needs to seriously consider how it can redirect the debate on crime. Perhaps a first step would be to dispel the myths about crime that so dominate popular culture.

Lobbying newspaper and television editorial boards, for instance, and expressing concern at their coverage of crime. Demanding that the media take a responsible approach to crime reporting and include stories about the causes of crime and what can be done about it. Taking the time to write letters to the editor and opinion pieces to convey a more progressive outlook on crime would be a worthwhile endeavor. For example, it is important to expose the industrialization of prisons and the profit motive behind the surge of private prisons.

The left should be working in coalitions to defeat repressive legislation, and to create progressive legislation, like gun control laws, for instance, that would move us closer to safer society.

The left must participate in building new programs that will address issues of homelessness that plague our cities. There is a growing need for affordable housing and quality child care.

Our communities need long term prevention programs designed to deter at risk children from turning to a life of crime. Early intervention is a more effective means of combating crime than are the longer prison sentences prescribed by politicians. A recent Rand Corporation study concluded that a state government could avert 157 crimes a year by investing $1 million in a parent training program and 258 crimes a year by investing the same amount in a graduation incentives program for teens. In contrast, it said, investing $1 million in the building and operating of the new prisons needed to incarcerate more career criminals for long periods of time would prevent only 60 crimes a year.

Another step towards a progressive approach to crime might be to initiate dialogue. Hold educational forums on upcoming legislation or salient issues in criminal law. Create an arena in which people can brainstorm about treatment programs, solutions to violence in schools, or simply discuss their fears openly.


We must somehow reverse the trend of throwing endless sums of money into prison construction and instead invest in the future of our children. Get tough policies don't make people safer. The overall reduction in crime has been across the board, regardless of whether or not the individual state has implemented a "Three Strikes Law." For the most part, crime policies today do nothing to solve the problem. It is the job of the left to stop the perpetuation of a system lacking in compassion and to address the issue of crime without exploiting fear of social decay.


  1See "Crime, Justice, and the Social Environment" in The Politics of Law, edited by David Kairys, 1982.

2President's Commission on Law Enforcement and The Administration of Justice, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1967), p. vi.

3See Nicole Hahn Rafter, "Left Out by the Left: Crime and Crime Control," Socialist Review, No. 89, Vol. 16, No.5, 1986, pp.8-9.

4Ibid, p.9

5See California Penal Code sec. 1170 (a)(1) (West 1984)

6Wilson gained notoriety in the mid seventies with his influential book, Thinking About Crime. In 1982, Wilson put forward his famous "broken windows" theory which was that a violent crime is bred by failing to stem minor nuisances such as graffiti or public urination.

7See, Paul Harris, Black Rage Confronts the Law, New York Press, chapter 14

8According to FBI figures, there was an overall 7% decline in crime in 1998.

9Since 1978, the number of violent offenders sent to prison every year has doubled, while the number of non-violent offenders has tripled, and the number of drug offenders has increased eight fold.

1037 Stan.L.R. 937 (1985), The Wrongs of Victims’s Rights, Lynn N. Henderson.

11American media still largely follow the doctrine of “if it bleeds, it leads.” See, “Media Anguish Over Sensational Stories”, by Kevin Fagan, San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 1999.

12Center for Media and Public Affairs, Washington D.C., Los Angeles Times report, 3/12/96.

13A recent Gallop Poll found that 56% of those surveyed thought that there was more crime now than there had been five years ago.

14Also see, James Gillian, M.D., Reflections on a National Epidemic Violence, Vintage Books ed., May 1997

15Report compiled by Justice Department statistician, Darrell K. Gilliard.

16Bruce Shapiro, "How the War on Crime Imprisons America", The Nation, April 22, 1996

17For an interesting article see, Malcolm Gladwell, "Damaged", New Yorker Magazine, Feb. 24 and March 3, 1997

18See, Kristin Bloomer, "America's Newest Growth Industry," In These Times, March 17, 1997





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