The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The declining violent crime rate has been a win for criminal justice reform. A reversal would be a loss.

Crime scene markers are seen Sunday on a street in Brooklyn, where a 1-year-old boy was shot and killed when gunfire erupted near a playground.
Crime scene markers are seen Sunday on a street in Brooklyn, where a 1-year-old boy was shot and killed when gunfire erupted near a playground. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
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The U.S. median age is 38, which means that probably less than half the population has a clear memory of life in 1991, when the violent crime rate reached its post-1970 peak of nearly 750 per 100,000 people. The rate is roughly half that today.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), though, is nearly 80. So he had an answer ready when New Yorker editor David Remnick suggested to him in a recent radio interview that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s support for a punitive 1994 crime bill might count against the former vice president as he seeks votes amid a national movement for criminal justice reform.

Clyburn told Remnick that “black folks almost ran me out of the room” when he opposed mandatory minimum sentences while campaigning for Congress in a majority African American South Carolina district in 1992. At the time, 83 percent of Americans felt the system was “not tough enough” on crime, according the Gallup poll; nearly half feared walking in their neighborhoods at night.

Two years later, Clyburn told Remnick, he and others in the Congressional Black Caucus voted for Biden’s bill.

The first lesson from Clyburn’s anecdote is an optimistic one, about why the country has reached a point where, in contrast to 1992, significant criminal justice reform seems not only politically feasible but likely.

Since 1994, Americans have grown less hawkish on law enforcement: Support for “tough” measures — such as the death penalty or mandatory minimums — has fallen to levels not seen in almost 50 years, according to an innovative index of “punitive sentiment” first published in 2013 by political scientist Mark D. Ramirez of Arizona State University.

For several years, in fact, U.S. public opinion has been receptive to new approaches based less on policing and incarceration, and more on social services and rehabilitation. In 2016, only 45 percent of Americans considered crime policy “not tough enough,” according to Gallup. Public reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May simply accelerated the preexisting trend.

And why is the public less punitive? This brings us to the second lesson of recent history: Punitive sentiment tends to move in tandem with the actual level of crime. Public support for harsh measures rose with violent crime rates in the 1970s and 1980s, then came down as the violent crime rate declined over the past quarter-century.

Ramirez identifies political leadership as a key variable: Punitive sentiment grew in the ’70s and ’80s as part of a broader racial backlash, including demonization of alleged black offenders, that white conservative politicians deliberately stoked.

Also, the public generally tends to believe the worst about crime, usually telling pollsters that it is growing even when official data show the opposite.

For all that, Clyburn’s anecdote reminds us that public opinion also does have a basis in reality. The more people experience crime in their communities — in 1992 South Carolina’s violent crime rate exceeded the national average — the more it becomes a political issue, ripe for demagogic exploitation but also crying out for legitimate solutions.

We may be experiencing a real-world test of these dynamics right now, in the sense that President Trump came to office railing against crime as if nothing had changed since the 1980s, when he took out newspaper ads decrying “roving bands of wild criminals” and calling for society to “unshackle” cops “from the constant chant of ‘police brutality.’ ”

Yet punitive sentiment kept on moving down during Trump’s presidency, along with the violent crime rate. (Ramirez’s 2013 article used opinion poll data collected between 1951 and 2006. In an email, he supplied an update showing trends through 2019.)

In backhanded acknowledgment of this, Trump leavens his calls for shooting rioters and jailing statue-topplers with boasting about his signature on the First Step Act, which reformed federal sentencing and modestly reduced incarceration.

An important point for reform is to deny Trump and other opponents any basis — either in rhetoric or in reality — for reigniting fear of crime.

This is why Clyburn promptly distanced national Democrats from calls to slash spending on police, telling Remnick, “I and a few others made it very clear we are not going to let ‘defund the police’ become a headline that destroys this movement.”

It is also why the recent upsurge in shooting deaths in cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and St. Louis is such an urgent issue, in human terms but also politically. Trump is already trying to exploit it.

The past two-plus decades of declining violent crime was one of the best things that ever happened for the cause of criminal justice reform. A reversal of that progress could be one of the worst.

Read more from Charles Lane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this column: 2020 poses unique problems in criminal justice

Brandon P. Ruben: Post-pandemic, the criminal justice class can choose not to return to business as usual

Karl A. Racine: The coronavirus pandemic requires good-faith adjustments to our criminal justice system

Charles Allen and Karl A. Racine: No, D.C.’s criminal justice reform efforts don’t go too far

Megan McArdle: The biggest problem with the criminal justice reform bill

DeAnna R. Hoskins: Is this really the best we can do for criminal-justice reform?

Eugene Robinson: In prison reform, a little of something is better than a lot of nothing

Michael Gerson: No more pits of despair. Offenders are still humans.

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