Crime reached unprecedented levels in the 1980s and early 1990s before it began a precipitous decline beginning in 1995. Experts from every field in the nation’s criminal justice system have offered reasons or speculation about what caused the decline. The murder rate (although 2015 experienced a slight uptick in the nation’s 17 largest cities) is about one-third of what it was in 1992, when it peaked and crime in every category has been reduced.
While crime rates are historically low by modern measures, some politicians and elected prosecutors are using fear of increased crime, along with promises of stiff terms of imprisonment, as a rallying cry to garner political power and gain, as well as to remain, in elected office.
Dearborn Sends More People to Prison than San Francisco
The New York Times in a September 2 report, written by Josh Keller and Adam Pearce, has touched on interesting phenomenon: the geography of “tough on crime” policing has shifted from large inner cities to mid-size cities in America where more people are being sent to prison and for longer periods of time than in urban areas. For example, the newspaper reported that Dearborn County, Indiana sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina.
15 Oxy Gets More Prison Than Murder
To illustrate this growing crime-fighting phenomenon, the Times pointed to a drug offender who got busted for possession of 15 oxycodone pills in Dearborn County. Criminal defense attorneys said such an offense would have resulted, at most, in a six-month sentence in Cincinnati or placement in a drug treatment program in San Francisco or probation in Brooklyn.
But in Dearborn County the offender was forced into a “plea deal” that sent him to prison for 12 years.
Cincinnati public defender Philip Stephens offered this reaction to the Times after hearing about the 16-year sentence:
“Years? Holy Toledo – I’ve settled murders for a lot less than that.”
The new crime-fighting reality in this country today is that criminal wrongdoers in “mostly white, rural and politically conservative” communities are more likely to be sent to prison than wrongdoers are in more liberal urban areas.
Rural and Suburban Counties See Increase in Prison Rates
The Times explained this growing “tough on crime” trend in rural America this way:
“A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America’s prison population for the first time since the 1970s. From 2006 to 2014, annual prison admissions dropped 36 percent in Indianapolis; 37 percent in Brooklyn; 69 percent in Los Angeles County; and 93 percent in San Francisco. But large parts of rural and suburban America – overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison – has gone in the opposite direction. Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen, according to a New York Times analysis, which offers a newly detailed look at the geography of American incarceration.
“Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties.”
We would be remiss if we did not offer this social observation: There is a serious racial divide in our country today. The current presidential campaign has brought it to the forefront in the nation’s public discourse. The goals of the Black Lives Matter group stand in stark contrast of the growing white nationalist, Alt-Right, movement—a racist movement that has been legitimized by the national media giving it a forum for expression of its white supremacy ideology.
Fear of Crime Used for Political Advantage
In modern politics, the face of the black male has been used as the face of crime since Lee Atwater produced the Willie Horton ad for the George H. Bush presidential campaign in 1988. White rural America, from counties in Washington State to Dearborn County, Indiana, fear hordes of black males being released from prison into their communities as the demand to reduce mass incarceration increases. These counties are sending loud and clear messages to released offenders—don’t ply the criminal trade in our communities.
Prosecutors Proud of High Incarceration Rates
Dearborn County prosecutor Aaron Negangard put the message this way:
“I am proud of the act that we send more people to jail than other counties. That’s how we keep it safe here.”
In 2011, the FBI reported that 48 percent of all violent crime in this country is committed by the nation’s 33,000 street gangs that consist of 1.4 million members. People in rural America are treated to a steady media stream about street gang violence in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, and they have, in fact, seen an increasing presence of gang activity in their own communities—especially gang activity associated with feeding the heroin and opiate epidemics now gripping many of these communities.
Rural America is both angry about, and afraid of, violent crime, especially gang related crime—and there is some cause for the concern.
That 2011 FBI gang threat assessment report stated that “gang members returning to the community from prison have an adverse and lasting impact on neighborhoods, which may experience notable increases in crime, violence, and drug trafficking.”
That assessment, they believe, is the increasing danger to their communities.
Orchestrated Fear of Blacks and Latinos is Root of Fear of Crime
But the real concern behind this is rooted in the white fear and anger directed at black and Hispanics males by white people. Dearborn County, for example, is 97 percent white—and it will send a disparate number of black people to prison with longer prison sentences than it will white people.
African-Americans Disproportionately Represented in Nation’s Prisons
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told the Times that the number of black prisoners in the nation’s prison system is “shockingly high.”
And that will remain the case as long as prosecutors selectively enforce the law along racial lines.
“My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can’t make me. The legislature can’t make me.”
Put simply, the prosecutor is politically beholden to no one. He sees sentencing and other criminal justice “reforms” designed to reduce the nation’s prison population (mostly comprised of black and Hispanic inmates) as an immediate threat to white conservatives in rural America.
Unequal Application of the Law Throws Equality Out the Window
Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Institute, responded to prosecutors like Negangard in the Times this way:
“Letting local prosecutors enforce state laws differently throws all notions of equality under the law out the window. This data puts governors and legislative leaders on notice that if they want to put criminal justice reforms into effect, they need to look at how prosecutors use and abuse their discretion.”
Dearborn County is one of those heavily white populated counties that is currently confronting heroin and opiate epidemics. Ordinary, law-abiding white people in these counties have suddenly become dependent upon the criminal activity needed to feed their addictions.
And prosecutors like Negangard intend to fight these drug epidemics with tough prosecutions and harsh prison sentences on the suppliers, not the users who will be placed in treatment programs or on probation.
“If you’re not prosecuting, then you’re de facto legalizing it,” Negangard told the Times.
And prosecute he does.
The Times reported that in 2014 Dearborn County sent “more people to prison than San Francisco or Westchester County, N.Y., which each have at least 13 times as many people.”
Prosecutor Run Amok
Local criminal defense attorney Douglas A. Garner told the newspaper that Negangard has “run amok.”
The criticism doesn’t phase Negangard. He has fought state legislative efforts to reduce mass incarceration with sentencing reform. And he apparently has the support of the majority of his constituency and other county officials who have allocated $11.5 million to double the size of their county jail and another $11 million to expand their courthouse.
Fear Drives Law and Order Campaigns
Public fear drives law and order campaigns—and it is both tragic and unfortunate that the demands for law and order in the current presidential campaign have been driven by divisive racial overtones.