The end of "Get Tough on Crime"?: Reviewing “Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration”
“Prison Song” by System of a Down is still one of my favorite jams (for multiple reasons) that I listen to know and then. Aside from having an awesome chorus riff, it has some interesting lyrics. Here is a sample:
They're trying to build a prison…
Following the rights movement
You clamped on with your iron fists
Drugs became conveniently
Available for all the kids…
They're trying to build a prison
(for you and me to live in)…
Another prison system
(for you and me)…
Minor drug offenders fill your prisons you don't even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich…
All research and successful drug policy show that treatment should be increased
And law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences…
They're trying to build a prison
(for you and me to live in)…
Another prison system
(for you and me)…
(What a great jam). This song came out in 2001 (my first year in college [go Lobos!]) and rhythmically summarizes the very real concerns about the United States’ experiment with mass incarceration. However, at that time, the political landscape regarding mass incarceration was about to change dramatically.
That is the central topic of a new book, “Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration”, by David Dagan and Steven Teles. They provide a fascinating account of why being “tough on crime” now seems like an ideological position relegated to the dustbin of history (for now [more on that below]). Dagan and Teles seek to explain why and how Conservatives have been changing their mind about the criminal justice system for the last 15 years. No longer are Conservatives and Republican politicians defined by a “tough on crime” mentality that dominated for nearly 50 years (beginning with Goldwater’s campaign in 1960). Rather, Conservative ideology has adapted to be critical of mass incarceration. What makes Dagan and Teles’ book intellectually stimulating is that they present a fairly interesting problem: The evidence about the effectiveness of mass incarceration has not changed substantially (sociologists have long held that this was going to be problematic), but Conservatives have not started to strongly back criminal justice reform. Why the change? A simple answer is that it is the economy (stupid). But this would be a situation in which Conservative ideology remaining stable, with political behavior reflecting a more pragmatic, response to budgetary restrictions imposed by the Great Recession. Dagan and Teles provide a more interesting explanation (and more empirically accurate), one that hinges on a fundamental shift in the framing of crime control among Conservatives.
So what happened? They argue that what has changed is the perception that it is appropriate for someone with a Conservative identity to be critical of the criminal justice system. Being “tough on crime” reflected Conservative commitments to law and order and the criminal justice system was an appropriate use of government power to protect the safety of citizens. From this standpoint then, it was ideologically inconsistent to be critical of mass incarceration (bleeding heart conservatives?). Despite mounting evidence that mass incarceration was problematic, it was impossible for Conservative Republicans to not be “tough on crime”. But things have changed. Perceptions have changed.
How did this perceptual change occur? They argue that there are two main sources of influence to examine.
First, structural variables, or aspects of the political atmosphere, changed in a way that made it acceptable for Conservatives to shift from the “tough on crime” framing that had been so dominate. Dagan and Teles identify three key aspects of change that influenced this process. First, Democrats mimicked the behavior of Republicans (i.e. get to the right of your opponent on crime control) making crime control less of a wedge issue and netting less electoral value. Second, the great crime decline of the 1990’s made Americans less concerned about crime as an issue that government should address (the concern over law and order of the 1960s had been a key factor making “tough on crime” a viable electoral issue initially). Third, Republicans shifted their attention toward terrorism as a political issue following the September 11th attacks. These structural changes provided a political environment where it no longer made sense to be tough on crime.
As, Dagan and Teles highlight, and occurring somewhat as a consequence of these structural changes, the Tea Party movement was another important factor that altered Conservatives’ views on the criminal justice system and had two important consequences. One, it brought a group of politicians into office who did not have a prior record of being “tough on crime”, thereby not creating the potential for a flip-flop on the issue. These individuals were free to endorse reforms in the criminal justice system and not incur the political consequences that prior representatives have faced. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the Tea Party movement reflected a growing sentiment among Conservatives of anti-statism. This is a fascinating insight and key change the authors identity. During the “tough on crime” era, Conservatives, though critical of government for inefficiency and excess, had largely excluded crime control institutions from this critique. Being “tough on crime” was about protecting public safety and the usual performance based approach to government organizations was not applicable (it conflicted with the ideological position). But this changed in the 2000s as Conservative rhetoric reframed the discussion of prisons (discussed below). In speaking about these new Conservatives, Dagan and Teles note: “Not raised in the crucible of the crime wars, they were open to seeing prisons as just another part of big government—an armed welfare state” (p. 40).
But, the shift among Conservatives in their approach to crime control required more than changes in the viability of crime control as an electoral issue. There were genuine changes from key political figures that helped reframe the way Conservatives saw prisons. This is the key part of Dagan and Teles’ argument, and the piece that takes up most of their book. Specifically, they argue that, in addition to structural features, a key mechanism that transformed Conservatives’ views was a process of identity vouching whereby a trusted messenger presents information that is contradictory to existing views in a way that is consistent with underlying principles. For example, whereas much of the concern over mass incarceration was framed as an issue of justice (e.g. the disproportionate impact on minorities), Conservative identity vouchers restructured criticism to focus on performance. Prisons were reframed as the personification of excessive government: a bloated bureaucracy that does not function probably, thereby making us worse off and undermining individual rights. This view, rather than the image of prisons being tools of elites to maintain social control, was more consistent with Conservative principles of preserving rights and limited government. And, in fact, made you a better Conservative if you were critical of mass incarceration. This is the key insight that Dagan and Teles emphasize. Though I have simplified the discussion, they go into great detail about the individuals and organizations that made this shift occur. Much of the book is dedicated to focusing on how these identity vouchers drew on personal resources to package criminal justice reform in a way that was palatable for senior Republican party members and, as a consequence, to transform Conservatives’ view of prisons.
One thing that stood out was the concern that Dagan and Teles raise about how the criminal justice reform movement could stall. In particular, they emphasize that increases in crime may bring back the “law and order” perspective that created the “tough on crime” agenda. I found this particularly insightful given the recent shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. While it remains to be seen, such events may spark fears about the breakdown of law and order and may provide a narrative that is similar to the concerns raised in the 1960s. For example, the theme for the first night of the Republican National Convention is “Make American Safe Again”. This sort of rhetoric would resonate with the country as concern about crime and violence has increased over the last two years, according to Gallup. However, this time may be different. As Dagan and Teles emphasize, the change among Conservatives has been to be open to evidence-based practices. During the “tough on crime” era, research was dismissed because it was not consistent with the narrative (and therefore lacked legitimacy). If the changes to Conservatives that Dagan and Teles describe are real, and can be sustained, then hopefully there will be a willingness to listen to researchers about how we make criminal justice organizations better. A willingness that was absent during the “get tough” era.
In a previous post, I raised the question of whether body-cams should be adopted by all police departments. I suggested that, although a typical evening newscast would lead you to believe that police abuse of authority is a national crisis, what is often overlooked, is the fact that the majority of Americans express a great deal of respect for the police. Gallup polling has consistently shown rates at 60% or above since 1992. That is nearly a quarter of a century in which a sizable majority respects the legitimacy of authority exerted by police. Moreover, the US fairs well with other wealthy countries which consistently show that prosperity and effective policing go hand in hand. Yet, these same studies indicate that lack of confidence in the police is concentrated among disadvantaged groups, and not just in the United States. What this boils down to is the simple fact that concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic. In other words, the diffusion of negative information or beliefs about the police is selective.
In this post, I want to revisit this idea in light of a new paper in the American Sociological Review by Henrich R. Greve, Ji-Yub (Jay) Kim, and Daphne Teh entitled “Ripples of Fear: The Diffusion of a Bank Panic”. Greve and his colleagues argue that negative information (e.g. protests against Wal-Mart) is selective in that it only spreads to some organizations and not others. Not all Wal-Mart stores experience protests, why? They emphasize that the academic literature examining selective diffusion has mainly focused on organizations as key players (i.e. active agents) in this process. In contrast to the adoption of innovations that may benefit an organization, negative or adverse reactions (negative information) spreads in a different way because the organization is not trying to spread it. Wal-Mart does not have an incentive to encourage protests. Diffusion of information is a selective process that occurs, but the organizations are passive agents. In contrast to positive information (or something that can spread that helps the organization), there is an external agent that is responsible for the diffusion (what they call external stakeholders). The question then is, if the organization itself not responsible for spreading negative information, how do external agents create selective diffusion paths? Why some Wal-Marts and not others? They propose a model whereby information about an organization is first judged by an external agent to be negative. Then, stigma spreads to other organizations through categorical judgment. That is, the external agent determines whether a separate organization is sufficiently similar to the organization for which information has been deemed negative to place it within the same category. Greve and colleagues argue that this determination occurs due to organizational similarity, community similarity, and network proximity. As this mechanism operates, selective diffusion paths are created.
So what does this have to do with perceptions of the police? A key part of their argument is that external agents will judge an organization as negative if the community in which that organization exists is similar to the community in which an already stigmatized organization is itself embedded. They develop this position by extending well-known issues concerning attribution bias and in-group/out-group preferences. As they argue: “These preferences influence judgements, because individuals with out-group bias tend to ascribe the cause of a negative event in another community to its members if they have very different…characteristics. Stakeholders often assume that a negative event occurring in a dissimilar community will be less likely to happen in their own community” (p. 401). This provides a plausible mechanism why the concern for the legitimacy of police authority is a localized crisis, not a widespread pandemic. The marked racial and socioeconomic differences across communities may create a situation in which external agents do not categorize negative information about a police department (e.g. accusations of excessive force) in another community to be applicable to their own local police department. Here, individuals may attribute blame to the individuals within those communities. In contrast, similar communities may perceive such events to be more likely to occur in their community. Since the cause is less likely to be attributed to internal characteristics (due to similarity), blame is more likely to be attributed to the organization. This is the process of selective diffusion. As mentioned, such a mechanism could generate an empirical trace that is consistent with the Gallup polling mentioned above.