when the polling firm Cooper & Secrest Associates asked 1,139 Americans in December which threat they took most seriously, 69 percent chose violent crime and only 19 percent named terrorist attack.Here's how Third Way's pollster broke out the big-picture ideological divisions on crime:
The survey was part of a striking report released yesterday by Third Way, a liberal think tank, and several governors, warning that the crime issue, which has slipped off the political agenda since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, is about to return.
"Four new and dangerous sociological trends are converging to disturb the peace and are threatening a crisis of crime, if not addressed," the report says.
The trends it cites include a huge increase in the number of criminals due to leave prison in the next five years, the infiltration of criminal gangs into the surge of illegal immigrants, the bulge in the number of young people entering the highest-crime years and the technology revolution that has made the Internet a place of danger for unsupervised youths.
The underlying numbers are startling. Twenty years ago, the country's total prison population was 700,000. Next year alone, that many will be released from prison, and, if past trends hold, nearly two-thirds will be rearrested.
In the next five years, the number of young adults and teenagers will have increased by 1 million, and, if past patterns hold, that will boost the number of crimes by 2.5 million.
Our research identified three distinct groups of Americans on the crime issue. The most prominent was the 55% of Americans whom we call “Solve-the-Problem” voters. They are non-ideological pragmatists who are open to a very active government role in crime prevention and intervention if properly designed and framed to emphasize personal responsibility. These voters are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and are dispersed evenly throughout the country.The states, as the traditional laboratories of democracy, are predictably doing a better job than the federal government at reacting to overincarceration and crime, says Broder, though to read Third Way's report you'd think only the federal government can fight local crime. That said, the report and Broder's discussion, while containing some good ideas, reinforced to me why bad crime policy in general is a bipartisan affair, not just the domain of liberals or conservatives. Let's walk through the four crime producing trends they cite.
The remaining two groups are far more ideological. “Throw-the-Book” voters comprise a small minority of the population and oppose any efforts at changing criminal behavior beyond enforcement and prison. They are overwhelmingly conservative. “Read-a-Book” voters believe wholeheartedly in rehabilitation and are far more likely to be liberal than the general population.
1. An increasing number of criminals leaving prison in the next five years. In Texas, this is already happening: 70,000 inmates leave prison and go onto parole every single year. This argues for three things, in my view: Beefed up parole supervision with reduced caseloads, expanded re-entry programming, particularly for housing, employment and transportation, and passage of the federal Second Chance Act and related state-level legislation to expand resources and programming for prisoner re-entry. To fail to do that when the demographers can tell us in advance what's coming borders on irresponsible, as does the failure to approve the Second Chance Act, in my view, several years ago now when it was equally clear it was needed.
2. The "infiltration of criminal gangs into the surge of illegal immigrants." Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows this is one of my personal bailiwicks - I think multinational drug cartels are a much bigger threat to Texas' security than most people realize, but the impetus to "crack down" on illegal immigrants whose sole crime is crossing the border to seek a job has clouded the activities of smugglers amidst literally millions of hard working immigrants. So the solution here, to me, is to expand immigration quotas and legalize immigrant workers in the United States already, so the criminal smuggling gangs will become more isolated and easier to target.
3. The "bulge in the number of young people entering the highest-crime years." This in my view is the biggest determining factor of crime beyond any single other element you can name (there are many variables, but I consider this one of a handful of truly primary causes). It is as inevitable as the sunrise. What's not inevitable is how we deal with it. Zero tolerance fills up prisons with people who don't need to be there, and a felony record makes it less likely they'll ever grow up and become productive citizens. So separating out the truly dangerous offenders from the type of "criminal" whose errors are more juvenile than malicious makes a lot of sense, and Third Way had a long list of interesting sounding juvie programs that are worth consideration.
4. Their last major "cause" of crime I consider largely bogus: "the technology revolution that has made the Internet a place of danger for unsupervised youths." This is empty scare rhetoric. Your kids were always in danger from the small percentage of predators in the population, and that number has not risen substantially because of the Internet, it only has offered a new medium that competes with driving around town looking for the lonely kid at the corner teen hangout. I believe the Internet poses new criminal opportunities and investigative challenges, but I don't believe that in of itself it causes crime to increase except to the extent it causes commerce (and hence the criminal proportion of commerce) to expand generally.
There's a lot of useful information here, but there's a lot missing, both from Third Way's analysis and from Broder's.
The biggest shortcoming in the report is its failure to focus on the need to improve the mental health services to divert low-level mentally ill offenders from the justice system. That would help a lot more than any amount of resources thrown at Internet crime, without a doubt. As of 2007, 30% of Texas prison inmates were former clients of the state's indigent mental health system. That's a huge factor that's only mentioned in passing in their analysis, but you really can't fix the system or even seriously talk about doing so without dealing with America's mental health crisis.
Similarly, the report advocates the continued criminalization of substance abuse, and at several points implies that arresting more drug users and low-level dealers somehow improves safety, decrying for example cuts to the Byrne grant program by the Bush administration that I personally support.
And on immigration, while they've identified the problem accurately, the solutions proposed aren't "progressive" by my standards at all: They want to "shut down the border" and launch a prison building plan to "Create enough beds so that all priority illegal immigrants who are apprehended can be punished or deported." Do we really need a prison building binge for immigration? And with progressives like those, what do we need right wingers for?
I've long believed that crime and punishment is a bipartisan issue, or rather a non-partisan one. Big government liberals like prisons as much as tuff on crime conservatives do, just for different reasons. IMO we don't need a "third way" on crime, we need a second.
UPDATE: A commenter over at Sentencing Law & Policy lets us know that Third Way is a Clintonista think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Conference.