Republican and rightwing rhetoric over the state of crime in the US could spark a rise in violent incidents and worsen the country’s mass incarceration problem, experts say, as “tough-on-crime” political ads and messaging seem set to play a large role in the 2024 election.
Violent crime was a huge focus for Republican candidates during the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans spent about $50m on crime ads in the two months leading up to those elections, the ads pushing a dystopian vision of cities ridden by murder, robbery and assault, and of Democratic politicians unwilling to act.
As the 2024 contest heaves into view, it is clear that Republicans plan to follow the same playbook.
“Joe Biden and the defund-the-police Democrats have turned our once-great cities into cesspools of bloodshed and crime,” Trump said in a recent campaign video.
Trump said if elected president he would order police forces to reinstate “stop and frisk” – a police tactic which has been shown to disproportionately target young Black men – and said he wanted to introduce the death penalty for drug dealers.
Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is expected to be Trump’s closest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, has also leaned into tough-on-crime rhetoric and policy. Last month, DeSantis signed a law lowering the death penalty threshold in Florida, allowing people convicted of certain crimes to be sentenced to death if eight or more jury members recommend it.
“They think that’s the way to score political victories,” said Udi Ofer, a professor at Princeton University and the former deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I think there’s a bit of a kneejerk, and, quite frankly, lazy attitude that tough-on-crime is the only way to win an election, despite the fact that we have so much evidence today that shows there are other ways.”
There is also an element of Republicans, and, Ofer said, some Democrats, pouncing on an increase in violent crime during the Covid pandemic.
The Brennan Center for Justice found that the number of murders per 100,000 people rose by nearly 30% nationwide in 2020, while aggravated assault rose by 11.4%. The rate of murder rose in big cities, which tend to vote Democratic and which are repeatedly demonized by Republicans and the rightwing media. But it also rose across the rest of the country.
“So-called red states actually saw some of the highest murder rates of all,” the Brennan Center said.
Since that peak, most types of violent crime have now dropped. Crime declined in 35 large cities in 2022, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, although rates remain higher than pre-pandemic levels. Still, the rate of homicide in major cities was about half that of historic peaks in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The 1980s was when tough-on-crime rhetoric “exploded”, Ofer said. It culminated in the election of prosecutors who promised more convictions and longer sentences.
The impact, Ofer said, was “an exponential growth in incarceration” in the US. About 300,000 people were in prisons and jails in 1973, but by 2009 that number had grown to 2.2m – making the US the largest incarcerator in the world.
“This was a result of hundreds of new laws and practices at the local level, at the state level, at the federal level, including new mandatory minimum laws, more cash bail and pre-trial detention, and more aggressive prosecutorial and policing practices,” Ofer said.
In this crime crackdown, not everyone was treated equally. Black people have been historically more likely to be arrested than white people, which led to higher rates of incarceration. A 2003 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2001 “an estimated 16.6% of adult black males were current or former State or Federal prisoners”. Just 2.6% of adult white males had been incarcerated.
Some progress has been made in the last two decades. By 2020 the number of people in jail or prison was down to 1.2 million – meaning the US still has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world – but the obsession with tackling crime, through measures including more arrests, more prosecutions and more imprisonments, could see a reversal.
“We are on the verge again of seeing the types of policies that devastated particularly low-income communities of color grow again as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Republicans have led the charge on crime rhetoric, Ofer said. But now Democrats are getting in on the act – “we are seeing a growing movement within the Democratic party pushing for more tough-on-crime policies”, Ofer said.
The rhetoric and fearmongering over crime has led, in part, to an expansion of “stand-your-ground” laws in the US. In the past 10 years, 14 states in the US have added some form of the law, which can rule that people determined to have acted in self-defense can escape prosecution for actions up to and including murder.
A 2022 investigation by Reveal found that 38 states now have some version of “stand your ground” – and the laws have proved devastating: a study published in 2022 found that the legislation was linked with an 8-11% increase in homicides.
There are direct consequences on the ground for people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community
Ironically, given the accusation from the right that Democrats are too soft on crime, it appears to be traditionally “red states” that have the more serious crime problem.
“The murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Donald Trump has exceeded the murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Joe Biden in every year from 2000 to 2020,” Third Way, a US thinktank, reported in January. Third Way also found that in 2020 murder rates “were 40% higher in Trump-voting states than Biden-voting states”.
Although Republicans harangued Democrats over crime in the 2020 midterms, the strategy seems to have had mixed success. Republicans largely underperformed in those elections, and Ofer pointed to the success of progressive prosecutors across the country as evidence that a tough-on-crime message is not always a successful route to take.
As well as the impact on incarceration and violent offenses, the tough-on-crime approach can also lead to the demonization of certain communities, said Stephen Piggott, a researcher at Western States Center, a non-profit organization which works to strengthen democracy.
Republican talking points about the danger of immigrants and people who live in inner cities could be behind an increase in attacks on minority groups. “In recent years, there’s been a real mainstreaming of both violent and dehumanizing rhetoric, and it’s espoused by elected officials and media personalities,” Piggott said.
“And it’s really served to kind of normalize this political violence. When you have individuals with large platforms, like elected officials and media personalities, and they’re talking about things like an impending civil war, it could lead to folks kind of taking that to heart and then acting on it.”
The number of hate crimes in the US increased by 12% in 2021, according to the FBI, although the true number is likely to be much higher, given data from some of America’s largest cities was not included in the FBI’s report.
About 65% of the hate-crime victims were targeted because of their race, according to the report, while 16% were targeted over their sexual orientation and 14% of cases involved religious bias.
“So there are direct consequences on the ground for people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community,” Piggott said.
“There’s a lot of impact going on right now.”
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