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Chapter 6: Deviance, Crime and Social Control

6.4 The Get-Tough Approach: Boon or Bust?

It would be presumptuous to claim to know exactly how to reduce crime, but a sociological understanding of its causes and dynamics points to several directions that show strong crime-reduction potential. Before sketching these directions, we first examine the get-tough approach, a strategy the United States has used to control crime since the 1970s.

Harsher law enforcement, often called the get-tough approach, has been the guiding strategy for the U.S. criminal justice system since the 1970s. This approach has involved increased numbers of arrests and, especially, a surge in incarceration, which has quintupled since the 1970s. Reflecting this surge, the United States now has the highest incarceration rate by far in the world. Many scholars trace the beginnings of the get-tough approach to efforts by the Republican Party to win the votes of whites by linking crime to African Americans. These efforts increased public concern about crime and pressured lawmakers of both parties to favor more punitive treatment of criminals to avoid looking soft on crime (Beckett & Sasson, 2004; Pratt, 2008). According to these scholars, the incarceration surge stems much more from political decisions and pronouncements, many of them racially motivated, by lawmakers than from trends in crime rates. As we noted earlier in this chapter, the conventional crime rate has declined significantly. Beckett and Sasson (2004, pp. 104, 128) summarize this argument,

Crime-related issues rise to the top of the popular agenda in response to political and media activity around crime—not the other way around. By focusing on violent crime perpetrated by racial minorities…politicians and the news media have amplified and intensified popular fear and punitiveness.…Americans have become most alarmed about crime and drugs on those occasions when national political leaders and, by extension, the mass media have spotlighted these issues.

Today more than 2.1 million Americans are incarcerated in jail or prison at any one time, compared to only about one-fourth that number 40 years ago (Warren, 2009). This increase in incarceration has cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars since then. While the size of the correctional population is still extraordinarily high compared to other nations due to changes in policy and practice in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the rate of incarceration did begin to decline slightly in 2008, and has dropped by over 138,000 inmates since that time. Similarly, within this same timeframe, the total correctional population (including prisoners and those on probation or parole) declined from 7,312,600 to 6,613,500 (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018).

Despite the very large expenditure to maintain such a large prison population, criminologists question whether it has helped lower crime significantly (Piquero & Blumstein, 2007; Raphael & Stoll, 2009). Although crime fell by a large amount during the 1990s as incarceration rose, and continues to decline, scholars estimate that the increased use of incarceration accounted for at most only 10%–25% of the crime drop during this decade. They conclude that this result was not cost effective and that the billions of dollars spent on incarceration would have had a greater crime-reduction effect had they been spent on crime-prevention efforts. They also point to the fact that the heavy use of incarceration today means that some 700,000 prisoners are released back to their communities every year, creating many kinds of problems (Clear, 2007). A wide variety of evidence, then, indicates that the get-tough approach has been more bust than boon.

Recognizing this situation, several citizens’ advocacy groups have formed since the 1980s to call attention to the many costs of the get-tough approach and to urge state and federal legislators to reform harsh sentencing practices and to provide many more resources for former inmates. One of the most well-known and effective such groups is the Sentencing Project, which describes itself as “a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration.” The Sentencing Project was founded in 1986 and has since sought “to bring national attention to disturbing trends and inequities in the criminal justice system with a successful formula that includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns and strategic advocacy for policy reform.” The organization’s Web site features a variety of resources on topics such as racial disparities in incarceration, women in the criminal justice system, and drug policy (http://www.sentencingproject.org).

Additionally, many sociologists and other social scientists think it makes more sense to try to prevent crime than to wait until it happens and then punish the people who commit it. That does not mean abandoning law enforcement, of course, but it does mean paying more attention to the sociological causes of crime as outlined earlier in this chapter and to institute programs and other efforts to address these causes. For example, the social ecology approach suggests paying attention to the social and physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods that are thought to generate high rates of crime. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, poverty, joblessness, dilapidation, and overcrowding. Strain theory suggests paying attention to poverty, while the differential association and social control theories remind us of the need to focus on peer influences and family interaction. The labeling theory reminds us of the strong possibility that harsh punishment may do more harm than good, and feminist explanations remind us that much deviance and crime is rooted in the expectations associated with masculinity.

A sociological understanding of deviance suggests the potential of several strategies and policies for reducing conventional crime (Currie, 1998; Greenwood, 2006; Jacobson, 2005; Welsh & Farrington, 2007). Such efforts would include, at a minimum, the following:

  1. establish good-paying jobs for the poor in urban areas,
  2. establish youth recreation programs and in other ways strengthen social interaction in urban neighborhoods,
  3. improve living conditions in urban neighborhoods,
  4. change male socialization practices,
  5. establish early childhood intervention programs to help high-risk families,
  6. improve the nation’s schools
  7. provide alternative corrections for non-dangerous prisoners in order to reduce prison crowding and costs and to lessen the chances of repeat offending, and
  8. provide better educational and vocational services and better services for treating and preventing drug and alcohol abuse for ex-offenders.

This is not a complete list, but it does point the way to the kinds of strategies that would help get at the roots of conventional crime and, in the long run, help greatly to reduce it. Although the United States has been neglecting this crime-prevention approach, programs and strategies such as those just mentioned would in the long run be more likely than our current get-tough approach to create a safer society. For this reason, sociological knowledge on crime and deviance can indeed help us make a difference in our larger society.

Continue to 6.5 End-of-Chapter Material


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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