Crime News Service: In several ways, the commingled issues of drugs and crime have come to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Candidates spoke often about the subject recently while campaigning in New Hampshire, which is facing a heroin epidemic. The disconnect between federal marijuana policy and state laws allowing recreational use of the drug is a political football. And former President Bill Clinton — whose wife is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination — recently was heckled during a speech for signing an omnibus crime bill in 1994.
The issue, as with any discussion about the myriad causes of crime, is complex and should not be reduced to simplistic rhetoric. Neither should the revisionist history surrounding the 1994 crime bill, which arrived at a time when crime was threatening the fabric of the country. As New York University professor Mark A.R. Kleiman wrote in February: “If you weren’t worried about crime in 1994, you just weren’t paying attention. No one knew then that we’d seen the worst. All we knew is that the number of murders had more than doubled, that the total number of violent crimes had increased six-fold in the previous 30 years, that no reversal of trend seemed to be in sight.”
So, there was some reasoning behind the 1994 crime bill. Yet that did not prevent Black Lives Matter protesters from heckling President Clinton, and it did not prevent Hillary Clinton from apologizing for the “very unfortunate impact” the bill had on the lives of many people through more frequent and longer prison sentences. In the wake of that crime bill, the United States saw a vast increase in its prison population, which now is by far the largest in the world.
Yet, since 1994, the country also has seen a drastic decline in violent crime, including a drop of nearly 50 percent in the number of murders. Not all of that can be attributed to the crime bill, but neither should the law be dismissed as a factor. As Bloomberg News wrote editorially: “The law is best understood as a democratic response to a crisis. Like all such responses, it was imperfect, dependent on political compromise and assumptions about the future. But it’s doubtful this current debate would even be happening without a steep drop in crime.”
That is the most important part of any discussion about crime and how it plays into this year’s presidential campaign. The public is able to have reasonable disagreements about proper sentencing guidelines and about the racial overtones of such guidelines because crime — while it remains a concern — no longer is at crisis levels. Crime always will play a role in the politics of fear (see the Nixon administration’s “War on Crime” and its targeting of leftists and minorities), but statistics have been trending in the preferred direction for two decades now.
Still, there remains room for common-sense compromise. One example can be found in this state, which became one of the first to legalize the recreational use of marijuana as Washington voters correctly surmised that the financial and the human costs of strictly enforcing marijuana laws were detrimental. The Obama administration has chosen to work with states that have legalized marijuana, but it is possible that the subsequent administration will take a more hard-line approach in backing federal marijuana laws.
Meanwhile, strong measures to prevent violent crime and punish those who are guilty of it remain essential for a civilized society. And discussions about the proper approach should play an important role in this year’s presidential campaigns.