Part XIII ended with the report of the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Corrections receiving a chilly political reception, thanks to the influence of the nationwide trend towards getting tough on crime. This post describes the general characteristics of that trend.
Wisconsin was far from the only state where crime issues were prominent during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Crime was a dominant political issue and public concern in states across the nation. Numerous scholars noted the high levels of public fears regarding crime present during that era. And accordingly, crime was highly salient in public discourse. To note one example, crime issues received more national television news coverage than any other topic throughout the first half of the 1990s. Gary LaFree, among others, has noted that this increase in the political salience of crime issues did not necessarily accord with increased crime rates; rather, many have attributed the rise of public concern with and fear of crime more to media coverage and political initiatives.
No matter the reasons for crime’s political salience, it resulted in continued political emphasis on the harsher, more deterrent approach to the issue which had first blossomed in the 1970s, now widely known as the “tough on crime” movement. By 1995, every state in the nation had undertaken some sort of sentencing reform since the movement began. Lawmakers in various jurisdictions continued to increase prison sentences for crimes and restrict or abolish parole, which dated back to the earliest reform proposals. Several other proposals with more recent pedigrees also began to spread. Among the most popular were mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for drug crimes; three-strikes laws, in which three-time felony offenders would receive mandatory life sentences in prison; and truth-in-sentencing laws, intended to make systems more determinate by requiring that offenders serve the vast majority of the sentence received.
Two very general features of these tough on crime proposals should be highlighted. The first is that these proposals, per their “tough” billing, were almost invariably intended to make sentencing systems more punitive. All were intended to impose longer, more severe sentences on offenders, and many, harkening back to California’s early determinate reforms, rejected rehabilitative philosophies in favor of deterrence and incapacitation. David Anderson in Crime & the Politics of Hysteria described the impetus behind such harsh policies as “expressive justice,” in which the symbolic expression of the community’s emotional reaction towards crime took precedence over practical crime-control measures.
Secondly, prison was the primary means used to make the system more punitive. Each major tough on crime policy listed above, old and new alike, forced more offenders to serve longer terms in prison. The inevitable result of their spread was a massive increase in prison populations nationwide. Between 1985 and 1998, the national prison population and incarceration rate each more than doubled. This, in turn, put a massive strain on state prison systems. As of 1996, thirty-one states were under court order to alleviate overcrowded conditions in at least one of their prison facilities.
Part XV describes the significant role of a Wisconsin think tank, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, in furthering the tough on crime movement.