The Power of Fear
By Keith Dauch
Professor Simon, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been teaching at Berkeley Law since 2003. He is also the author of several books including the award winning Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear.
In your book you show that the goals of government regarding the war on crime have shifted in the last four decades. Talk about why that happened and how.
We may be seeing a shift again. But certainly we can point to the 1968 presidential election that was a very law and order focused campaign, as well as the National Commission on Crime that President Johnson appointed in the late sixties. There are a variety of reasons why Americans may have been more perplexed by crime in the sixties then they had been previously, and I tried to explore those. But I think the important thing in terms of the government side of it is how many of our political leaders from different levels of government, state as well as national, discovered that around the same time that crime was an issue that could really work for them.
Why that kind of political identity around crime became so successful is an important question that I have labored at trying to figure out for many years. I think it is increasingly a historical question. I don’t think the current generation or even folks a bit older, who are coming of age in a significantly lower crime environment and at the end of a prison boom that was a response to this war on crime and this politicization of crime that has now become very expensive, understood that those costs compete with our colleges and other things for resources.
Can you briefly talk about how politicians use fear as a tool when it comes to talking about crime.
When we want to get people to do something together and rally ourselves more nationally or politically we tend to do so by fear. Whether it is the fear of the Great Depression or the rising set of dictatorships around the world that Franklin Roosevelt mobilized the country in the thirties and forties around, fear that poverty would set back American development which was a big theme in the relatively optimistic Kennedy/Johnson era and then the fear of crime. Now we can say there are other fears out there that we have not used affectively enough. That is Americans don’t seem, in my opinion, fearful enough about climate change and about the consequences it is having. But of course some of these nasty summers we’ve had have begun to capture people’s imagination. It is a lot harder to get people fearful about things that I would call more structural or institutional. Here in California we had a whole suburban neighborhood blow up a few years ago because the gas pipes underneath it had been badly done fifty years ago and had eroded. I don’t have to tell you that Connecticut and the Northeast is full of bridges that are crumbling. Unless you have a spectacular bridge collapse like the one in Minnesota a few years ago, it is hard to get people mobilized around that. One of the things we need is a politician that is going to be successful at mobilizing the country about some of these more environmental fears. That hasn’t happened yet, we haven’t had our Roosevelt for the climate yet.
What type of shift do you think is going on right now?
Making predictions is a terribly dangerous thing for social scientists or historians to do because we are wrong more often then we are right, but we are sometimes good at sensing that something big is happening. The change is a move away from mass incarceration. We know that the growth of the American prison population that went on relentlessly for some 37 years, formally came to an end about 2 years ago and is leveling off. That won’t naturally come down to what it once was by itself, because there are powerful political forces, not just interest, but attitudes, assumptions, and identities, by both politicians and voters that are going to keep that high unless attitudes change. But just the fact that it is leveling down is a big change. The kind of commitment at all levels of government that there was for the last few decades to really build up the prison population and keep it high has kind of lost its momentum. I think the reason for that is partly because of the tremendous fiscal crisis that we’re in right now and the money is just not there to invest in more and bigger prisons. It is also because of the aging prison population and the health conditions in prison.
Current estimates are that about 40 percent of state prison inmates are chronically ill. Part of what mass incarceration was about was hitting people with very long sentences and with laws like “three-strikes” that tend to hit people toward the end of their criminal careers, ironically, and the beginning of their patient careers. They’re going to be needing more medical care. There really is a medical care time bomb in our prisons, and it is going off now in California with the Brown v Pradda case. Part of the discussion that Brown v Pradda started is that qualitatively prisons are much more abysmal then most people reckoned with. California had sustained a period of hyper-overcrowding where our prison system was over 200 percent of capacity and some prisons were over 300 percent. That tells us prisons are not humane places. The Supreme Court opinion includes some really graphic descriptions of the kind of suffering that prisoners in California were undergoing. Dying of conditions like testicular cancer without receiving any kind of help from indifferent prison officers and non-existent medical infrastructures. The other revealing dimension is a lot of prisoners aren’t that kind of pumped up, relentlessly aggressive, healthy, young men that American’s imagine prisoners as. Likewise they are not the unchanging high rate offenders that a lot of our crime policies assume they are. But even the kind of classic offenders that I think American’s imagine they want prisons for, young men that are involved in some sort of predatory crime; they change too. Not only does their criminal behavior change, but they get sick and they get older. If you put that together with the fact that crime is at its lowest rate really since the sixties and that Americans have other priorities right now, in my optimistic view we are in a moment that looks more possible to shift away from the policies we have been on for the last couple generations then any time in the resent past.
You had called the US prison system a “toxic waste dump” with the decrease in parole. What are the consequences if we don’t take the opportunity to shift away from that mass incarceration mindset?
I think it is grim. A failure to really go through the change in consciousness has a number of really important effects for prisoners. As their health deteriorates prisons are going to become places of graves, morbidity, and depression among other things. The other side of it is the sort of damage to American cities and society from the formally incarcerated whose lives are still damaged by the affect of their criminal record and their experiences in prisons. If we don’t repair the damage generationally it is going to go on for another half century or more and it is going to impact the most disadvantaged people and communities in America.
To compare it with that “Toxic waste” metaphor, at the end of the industrial area when the factories started to close, not only did they take their jobs away, but the legacy that they left, in terms of environmental pollution, meant that the cities that had once benefited from them were even further stymied from recovering from that economic loss. I fear that the same thing is going to come from mass incarceration. The same cities that have been stabilized, to some extent, in recent years before the bust were showing some promising signs of recovery with more people in younger generations interested in living in cities rather than in suburbs. All that could be delayed, less affective, less successful, if we don’t do something to remediate the damage, and make people feel safer about cities.