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Section Objective

This section will provide a historical narrative of the rise of the modern "Tough on Crime" movement. It will explore the Right's role along with the cooperation of liberals and the mainstream media in promoting punitive state policies.

Chapter Outline

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The "tough on crime" movement refers to a set of policies that emphasize punishment as a primary, and often sole, response to crime. Mandatory sentencing, Three strikes, truth-in-sentencing, quality of life policing, zero tolerance, and various other proposals that result in longer and harsher penalties and the elimination of rehabilitation and other programs are all contemporary examples of "tough on crime" policies.

The effects of these policies are alarming. Local, state and federal governments have all adopted and implemented these policies resulting in enormous increases in drug arrests, more punitivesentencing proposals, resurgence of the death penalty, departure from juvenile justice systems, and increased racial profiling and community surveillance. While proponents claim these policies are race-neutral, poor people and people of color are overwhelmingly affected and ensnared by the criminal justice system.

In the following article, scholars Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson argue "that conservative politicians have worked for decades to alter popular perceptions of crime, delinquency, addiction, and poverty, and to promote policies that involve 'getting tough' and 'cracking down.'" They also challenge the claim that political elites were simply responding to popular opinion about crime and punishment, and instead argue that conservatives played a large role in shaping the public's perceptions about crime. The authors document how the modern "tough on crime" movement was part of a larger effort to increase votes for the Republican Party, and more significantly, to redirect State policy away from social welfare toward social control.

It is important to note that while the modern "tough on crime" movement- and the resulting incarceration boom-can be traced to late 1960s and early 1970s, many activists justifiably argue that the U.S. government has always had a "get tough" policy beginning with Native colonization. However, for the purposes of understanding the modern Right, this section will focus primarily on the electoral and political development of the "get tough" movement since the 1960s.

Chapter Contents

Pages 43-68 of Defending Justice, edited by Palak Shah

  • Origins of the Current Conservative Discourse on Law and Order by Katherine Beckett, Ph.D. and Theodore Sasson, Ph.D.
  • History of Racially Disparate Drug Law Enforcement
  • Role of the Right: Intellectual Development of Conservative Crime Theory
    • James Q. Wilson
    • National Rifle Association
  • Organizing Advice: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, a Q&A with Break the Chains
  • Additional Resources



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