A New Book on the Rise of the Smart on Crime Movement

As a field, criminology pays insufficient attention to two things: political science and political conservatives. The former oversight derives from the siloization of social science in most universities, the latter emerges from the field being almost uniformly left-wing, such that conservatives can be dismissed as the unthinking enemy rather than understood as political and policy actors. Fortunately, Professor Garrick Percival has written a book that overcomes both of these problems: Smart on Crime: The Struggle to Build a Better American Penal System.

The book analyzes the rise of discontent with mass incarceration and harsh criminal penalties among politicians and the public. At the federal level and in state after state, strange bedfellows have made common cause to begin forging a less restrictive, less punitive and less expensive criminal justice system. The book has plenty of wonky detail regarding the specific programs and policies that have been adopted (supported with many citations that will be familiar to RBC readers). But I think its unique contribution is how it digs into the politics behind the Smart on Crime movement. The book explains better than anything else I have read where this movement came from and why it emerged when it did.

Quite rightly, Percival focuses heavily on conservatives as the gatekeepers of reform. In case studies of three well-chosen states (California, Ohio and Texas) Percival documents that if conservatives lead on criminal justice reform, liberals enthusiastically join the cause, but when conservatives veto it, reform is feeble or non-existent. Percival explains this as a hangover from the high crime era, when voters got tired of liberal explanations for and responses (and non-responses) to crime and went in search of politicians who were “tough on crime”. They found them mainly within the Republican Party, but also among some conservative Democrats as well (e.g., California Governor Gray Davis was a wholly owned subsidiary of the prison guards’ union). Even though crime has fallen enormously in the past 20 years, much of the political class still fears that reform initiatives will be tarred as “hug a thug” policy.

But like Nixon going to China, a coalition of Christian Evangelicals, economic conservatives, libertarians and tough guys with second thoughts had the credibility to lead much of the Republican Party to embrace criminal justice reform. The book also documents the influence of policy entrepreneurs like Mark Levin and Right on Crime, who have been highly successful at changing the terms of the debate. The only dead-enders, Percival notes, have been prosecutors, who are now as out of touch with popular sentiment as many soft on crime liberal politicians were in the 1970s.

Throughout, the book impressed me by not yielding to simple explanations, including the theory that the economic downturn of 2008 caused the move toward de-incarceration. Percival notes that some facts support this explanation, but many more do not: Incarceration rates rocketed up in recession after recession in the 1980s and 1990s and Texas began its recent reforms with its budget in the black. Likewise, while acknowledging that people’s feelings and beliefs about crime can in some respects be divorced from facts and manipulable by politicians, the book also makes clear that America’s multi-decade crime wave was a real phenomenon that hurt many real human beings, creating a constituency for many of the tough policies the U.S. has today. More simply, just because the public is panicking doesn’t necessarily mean that nothing is really wrong.

I had some quibbles some of the details and arguments in the book, but none of them changed my fundamental view that this is a volume well worth reading. If you want to learn about the smart on crime movement, this book should be your first port of call. Kudos to Dr. Percival, whose work I look forward to following in the future.

[Cross-posted at the Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.