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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity -- Calm after Crisis: The Modern Development and Institutionalization of Criminal Justice

December 12, 2007 // 2:00pm4:00pm

Vesla Weaver, Assistant Professor of Politics, University of Virginia, speaker; commentators Victoria Hattam, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science, The New School for Social Research; Rogers Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania. Sponsored by the Maurice Falk Fund.

Because of dramatic shifts in crime policy in the late 1960s, the United States' incarceration rate is now the highest in the world. African Americans born in the 1960s are two times more likely to serve prison time than were their cohorts in the 1940s, the budget for corrections has grown six times as fast as the budget for education, and crime enforcement is now largely federalized. Speaking in the nineteenth program in the Division of U.S. Studies' series on new scholarship in race and ethnicity, Prof. Vesla Weaver discussed her research on the way crime policy in the United States became developed during the 1960s and how it has been maintained.

Prof. Weaver argued that the shift in crime policy evolved from a destabilized racial structure. Some legislators, whom Weaver called "issue entrepreneurs," sought more punitive crime policy measures as a panacea for the urban unrest that the country was experiencing during the civil rights struggle. Weaver's examination of legislative debates about the Civil Rights Act of 1957 convinced her that most of these "issue entrepreneurs" – many of them Southern segregationists – equated civil rights activities with criminal acts and "sought to criminalize racial discord." After they lost the fight against the 1957 Act, they turned instead to the argument that the civil rights movement encouraged criminal activity by emphasizing selective adherence to the law. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) revived that position by making crime control a major part of his platform when he ran for president in 1964.

The eruption of riots such as those in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965, and the subsequent likening of racial unrest to crime by major media outlets, such as U.S. News and World Report, helped enhance the assertion that racial unrest led to criminal acts. The Democratic Party began deemphasizing civil rights and emphasizing the fight against crime. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "War on Crime" in 1965 and Congress, its civil rights supporters constrained by the crime argument, responded to the President's declaration with the passage of the first major federal program to aid and guide states' efforts in fighting crime – the 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA).

The result was a shift in crime policy from an emphasis on parole and judicial discretion to more punitive measures. President Richard Nixon placed an even greater emphasis on punitive measures, supporting passage of the Omnibus Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1968. Under the Safe Streets act, the federal government, through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, gave block grants to states, and other grants to nongovernmental organizations, to expand the states' criminal justice systems. There were 150,000 such grants between 1968 and 1981. The federal government thereby created a constituency of state agencies and nongovernmental organizations that depended on the continued existence of the LEAA. By 1968, Weaver noted, beneficiaries of LEAA grants, such as the National Governors Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which initially opposed the passage of the 1965 LEAA, became fervent supporters of the Safe Streets Act.

LEAA and the Safe Streets legislation resulted in the rapid expansion of state criminal justice systems in the late 1960s and the 1970s. LEAA grants required states to increase their crime budgets by five percent per year and to be willing to assume the costs of the projects initiated by the grants. Without federal assistance, Weaver asserted, states were unlikely to have created such a substantial criminal justice infrastructure. With increased attention on crime, new technological systems that reported crime data more accurately and the criminalization of more offenses, states reported even greater crime rates. Its efforts at reducing crime rates proved ineffective and the LEAA was disbanded in the early 1980s. Nonetheless, the punitive criminal justice system, the development of which was facilitated by the LEAA, remains.

Both commentators concurred with Prof. Weaver's assertion that some policies, such as the Safe Streets Act, beget a bureaucracy that is dependent upon the continuation of the policies that brought it into being. Prof. Victoria Hattam was less convinced by Weaver's argument that crime policy changes were a direct factor of the efforts of the "issue entrepreneurs," and asked whether smaller and earlier societal changes might have been as responsible for anti-crime legislation as the perceived "crisis" of civil rights. Prof. Rogers Smith agreed that national priorities shaped state crime policies and institutions but thought Weaver's case would be strengthened if she could connect the legislative discussions of crime and race in the 1970s with the legislative discourse of the 1960s. Until the mid-1960s, he commented, racial politics focused on the question of whether this nation should continue to permit segregation. There was then a transitional period during which coalitions formed around new issues and, by the late 1970s, there was a battle between those who favored race-targeted forms of governmental assistance such as affirmative action and those who argued both that policies should be color-blind and that there was a clear connection between crime and bad parenting. The criminal justice discourse became centered on the question of whether crime could best be fought by attacking its material roots such as the societal lack of equality or by increased punishment. The conversations about racial justice and the criminal justice system remained entwined through the 1970s, as they do today.

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

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