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On the Wire
Crime Policy of the Democratic Party
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on July 29, 2004
Copyright 1996-2008 www.Criticism.Com
This essay appears in The Encyclopedia of the American Democratic and Republican Parties, published by the International Encyclopedia Society. The encyclopedia won the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1997.
1 Policy Goes Federal
2 Fundamental Tenets of the Liberal Position
3 Democrats Called "Soft on Crime"
4 Republicans Undermine Rational Policies
6.1 Democratic Party
6.2 Republican Party
7 Bestselling Books on the Democratic Party
Until the dawn of the 20th century and the social problems that accompanied urbanization and industrialization, crime policy was often viewed as properly belonging to state and local authorities. The U.S. Constitution, combined with a tradition of federalism, reserved police powers for the states, and both the federal and state governments were satisfied to keep it that way, at least until the 20th century. Before the 1900s, most of the federal government's forays into crime policy involved regulating interstate commerce and the railroads, protecting the mails, combatting counterfeiting, and conducting such moral purity crusades as those against pornography and lotteries. With the Sherman Antitrust Act in the late 1800s, Congress struck out against monopolies.
After the turn of the century, Congress increasingly turned to passing legislation to solve a growing crime problem. And while many Democrats played important roles in moving anticrime legislation through Congress, several stand out as key players as the war against crime unfolded. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a war on crime as part of his New Deal. During Roosevelt's administration, Democratic Representative Hatton W. Sumners of Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, helped guide anticrime legislation through Congress. In subsequent years, conservative Southern Democrats often led the fight in Congress against crime. For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, Senator John L. McClellan, a conservative Democrat from Arkansas, led a committee that produced several landmark pieces of anticrime legislation. In the mid 1990s, Democratic President Bill Clinton fought to bolster federal antiterrorism laws in the wake of bombings at the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Many of the battles among Democrats over anticrime legislation took place not so much over the need for the acts but over to whom -- state governments or local authorities -- federal funds should be distributed, battles that frequently divided the Democratic Party. Southern Conservative Democrats have tended to favor allocating federal anticrime funds to state governments, while their more Northern, liberal, and urban counterparts have campaigned to give the money to city and other local administrations. Members of the Democratic Party have also been divided over such issues as broadening police powers and spending on crime prevention versus repression, again with conservative Southern Democrats taking a harder line than other elected members of the party by favoring an expansion of search and seizure laws and a focus on repressing crime.
In 1908, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt helped increase the federal government's anticrime role by proposing the creation of a Bureau of Investigation within the Department of Justice. But recalling allegations that Roosevelt had misused the Secret Service for his political ends and wary of the president's motives, Congress rejected his proposal. The president reacted by establishing the bureau by executive order.
Then, in 1910, Congress passed a piece of landmark legislation, the Mann Act, officially the White Slave-Trade Act, prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for prostitution. A few years later, Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act over Republican William H. Taft's veto. The act forbid the use of interstate commerce for the movement of liquor into dry states.
In 1914, the seeds of the drug war of the 1980s were planted as Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which regulated professionals dealing with narcotic drugs. Enforcement of the legislation increasingly criminalized drug trafficking and the use of narcotics, which in turn prompted still more legislation.
As the century moved on, crime increasingly moved into the spotlight as a political issue, and the prohibition period brought yet more attention to it. During the presidential election of 1928, prohibition was a major point of contention between Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith and the Republican nominee, Herbert Hoover, who went on to win the election and to focus the nation's attention further on crime.
As part of his New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's went on to expand Hoover's drive against criminals into a war on crime. The president's attorney general, Homer S. Cummings, teamed up with Democratic Representative Hatton W. Sumners of Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to push ten pieces of anticrime legislation through Congress, with much of their enforcement responsibilities going to the FBI.
Although organized crime had certainly existed in American before World War I, federal legislators had generally considered the problem to be the province of state and local authorities. But as organized crime increasingly pervaded the national consciousness, Congress began to react -- first with anti racketeering statues enacted in 1934 and 1946 and later with the proceedings of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, otherwise known as the Kefauver Crime Committee after its chairman, Estes Kefauver, a Tennessee Democrat. The committee, formed in 1950, also included Democrats Lester C. Hunt of Wyoming and Herbert R. O'Conor of Maryland.
During the second half of the 20th century, growing concern over organized crime, drug abuse, and violent crime as well as the advent of the civil rights movement brought a massive increase in federal involvement in law and order issues. From 1957 through 1960, Senator John L. McClellan, a conservative Democrat from Arkansas, ran the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field that was investigating labor-management racketeering -- meaning organized crime. The committee uncovered a close relationship between members of the underworld and the heads of several unions, most notably the Teamsters. The hearings eventually led Robert F. Kennedy, Democratic President John F. Kennedy's attorney general and the former chief counsel for the McClellan labor racketeering hearings, to gain passage in the early 1960s of several anticrime statues aimed at curbing the gambling activities of the underworld. Robert Kennedy also led a drive against racketeering.
In the mid-1960s, a dramatic shift in national attitude took place: Crime began to be viewed as a national problem warranting a national solution. In 1964, the Democratic Party's platform, which for years had made little mention of crime, commented that lawlessness must be eradicated.
The 1964 presidential campaign battle among Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, Independent candidate George Wallace, and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson further brought crime into the national spotlight as a policy issue. In reaction to Civil Rights demonstrations and a rising crime rate, both Goldwater and Wallace included a strong law and order plank in their campaigns, with Goldwater often referring to the "crime in the streets." Both accused Johnson of fostering a leniency that abetted crime. In the conservative tradition, Goldwater and Wallace promised to repress crime with a stricter enforcement of the criminal code.
Johnson responded not so much with a war on crime as a "War on Poverty," hoping to reduce the crime rate by ameliorating what such Democratic liberals as Johnson saw as its root cause. Indeed, even by as early as the 1960s, the Democrats had focused on attacking the root causes of crime. In fact, references to such an approach appear as early as the 1940 Democratic Party platform, when the party noted its work in clearing the slums that, it said, were breeding grounds of crime.
The difference between the approaches of how to resolve the crime problem reveals the fundamental tenets of the conservative and liberal positions. The conservative position -- including that taken by many in a long line of Southern Democrats -- seeks to resolve crime directly through repressing it. On the other hand, the liberal position, often taken up by many Northern, urban members of the Democratic Party, seeks to solve the crime problem by alleviating what they see as its source: poverty, discrimination, and inequality. The conservative position emphasizes individual responsibility while the liberal view centers on social welfare. Hence Johnson's Great Society programs.
In 1967, as the next presidential election was approaching, the crime issue remained alive, kept to the fore of public and political consciousness by a high crime rate and continuing racial tensions. In February, President Johnson presented a detailed message to Congress on crime that included a landmark proposal for the enactment of the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1967, one of the biggest pieces of federal legislation yet proposed to help combat crime. The measure proposed to implement a large-scale program of grants to cities and other communities to aid their fight against crime.
The president's bill, however, encountered formidable opposition in Congress, not only from Republicans but also from Southern Democrats, both of which groups were becoming increasingly disenchanted with Johnson's Great Society program that, they believed, had made big promises but had fulfilled few of them. The objection to the president's bill, though, was not over the need for it, but over how the funds should be allocated. Johnson's bill would distribute money to the cities; Republicans and Southern Democrats wanted the grants delivered to the states. In the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and amid rioting in such cities as Newark and Detroit, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the bill.
Meantime, as the debate over Johnson's proposal continued into spring 1968, law and order again rose as a central point of contention in the presidential election. Richard M. Nixon, seeking the presidency for the Republican Party, employed the issue in his campaign, as did Wallace, who was again running for the presidency as an Independent candidate. Both Nixon and Wallace argued that decisive action needed to be taken against crime -- and that action meant enforcing the criminal laws more forcefully. The voting public, having its attention further focused on crime by the campaign messages of Nixon and Wallace, waited to see what Congress would do with Johnson's proposal.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm among Republicans and, perhaps more important, conservative Southern Democrats for the administration's bill, the House Judiciary Committee reported out a bill that, in accordance with the president's proposal, provided direct grants to local authorities. The committee's chairman, Democrat Emmanuel Celler, was instrumental in guiding the bill through committee. Yet 12 of the 15 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee lobbied strongly against the bill when it was introduced to the floor, where met strong opposition not only from House Republicans but also from conservative Southern Democrats. The Southern Democrats joined the Republicans in arguing that the bill would usurp states' rights and allow the central government to dictate the law enforcement policies of local authorities.
The Republicans counterattacked with an alternative named the Cahill Amendment after its sponsor. It proposed distributing block grants to state agencies rather than grants-in-aid to local authorities. Besides House Republicans and many Southern Democrats, 47 of the 50 governors -- many of whom were members of the Democratic Party -- supported the Cahill Amendment. On the other hand, big city majors, again including many Democrats, backed the administration's bill. Thus, a deeper division arose within the Democratic party over the Safe Streets and Crime Control Act. Democratic city majors as well as liberal, Northern Democrats in the House held fast to the administration's plan, while state governors and Southern Democrats generally opposed it, favoring the Republicans' alternative instead.
A fault line had also developed within Johnson's Democratic administration. The President's Crime Commission, for one, did not strongly support grants to local authorities. Rather, it identified lack of coordination as among the problems of U.S. crime policy, which some interpreted as an endorsement of the need to better include state governments in law enforcement. Second, many other mid-level administration officials quietly favored the Republicans' block grants approach.
These fractures within the Democratic Party, both inside and outside the administration, helped influence the House of Representatives to reject the administration's bill in favor of a bill sanctioning a strong state role.
During this period, the Senate Judiciary Committee was considering the administration's bill. The committee's chairman, conservative Democrat John McClellan of Arkansas, frowned upon Johnson's proposal, causing an early party fissure in the Senate. Backed by three other Southern Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Democrat McClellan joined committee Republicans to rewrite the administration's bill to emphasize a strong state role in fighting crime. However, some of the more liberal Senate Democrats, arguing that the revised bill was anti-city, obtained a compromise stipulating that states had to funnel percentages of the grants to local government units. In the end, like in the House, Southern Democrats joined forces with Republicans to rout the administration's bill and substitute a state-oriented version for it.
Over the objections of some liberal Democrats, President Johnson reluctantly signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 into law, saying that it contained "more good than bad." The act, which included the establishment of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, was a victory for critics of the Great Society, including some conservative Southern Democrats. The enforcement administration survived into the 1980s, when battles over the federal budget led to its demise. The act also included gun control provisions initially proposed by Johnson, though they had been weakened by Republicans during their revision of the bill. In the act, conservative Democrat McClellan succeeded in winning expanded authority for wiretapping without warrants, despite objections from his fellow, albeit more liberal, Democrats, including President Johnson.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the administration of Republican President Richard Nixon continued the full-on attack against crime begun by Johnson -- but with an emphasis on law and order. Nixon's policy, however, came under attack, largely from liberals, who saw Nixon's law and order campaign as attempts to put down civil rights activists and antiwar demonstrators. President Nixon, on the other hand, used the rising public sentiment that criminals were out of control and city streets unsafe to assail members of the Democrat Party as being "soft on crime."
Yet during the Nixon administration, several pieces of anticrime legislation became law, including the landmark Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. Sponsored by Senator McClellan, the conservative Southern Democrat from Arkansas, and Senator Samuel J. Ervin, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, the act included Title IX, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statue, which helped launch a concerted drive against organized crime. The statue established severe criminal and civil penalties for using racketeering money or procedures in authentic businesses. But it also led to numerous civil lawsuits, which in turn prompted Congress to review the statue.
In 1970, President Nixon also helped encourage passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act, which reinforced narcotics penalties. Yet the act did not stop the issue of drug abuse from reappearing in nearly every election year thereafter; the issue eventually culminated during the 1980s in conservative Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs" and, later, with passage of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which further increased penalties for both users and dealers, established a cabinet-level drug czar, and set aside additional federal funds to fight drugs.
But Nixon's criticism of the Democrats as soft on crime and his anticrime crusade soon ended, as he found himself accused of perpetuating criminal acts as part of the Watergate affair and several of his high-ranking administration officials -- including Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew and Attorney General John N. Mitchell -- convicted of crimes.
The 1980 campaign of conservative Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan revived the Republican Party's law and order theme and reinvigorated crime as a national political issue after it had flagged slightly during the latter half of the 1970s. After being elected president, Reagan's anticrime policies focused on repressing, rather than preventing, crime, drawing wide-spread criticism from Democrats. During Reagan's tenure, fighting crime translated into combatting drug trafficking and abuse. He expanded the federal government's drug interdiction effort while Nancy Reagan, the first lady, led a "Just Say No" campaign that equated drug use with immorality. In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which greatly expanded Reagan's war against trafficking and abuse. Republican President George Bush continued Reagan's antidrug drive among his crime-fighting efforts.
During the 1990s, crime has remained a dominant political issue. Following the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the attack on the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, President Bill Clinton, a moderate Democrat, fought for a crime bill aimed at combatting terrorism. Clinton also sought to address the crime problem with such crime-prevention proposals as the establishment of "drug courts" that obtain treatment for addicts and midnight basketball leagues that give teenagers an alternative to hanging out on city streets. The programs have been popular with Democrats and backed by many moderate Republicans. But not conservatives. In late 1994, conservative Republicans, led by Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Speaker of the House, tendered a plan to reduce crime prevention spending by $5 billion, starting a conflict that polarized Congress. Conservatives maintained that such spending is wasteful, while the Democrats as well as Republican moderates argued that spending money on crime prevention is cheaper than building prisons. Yet the ultra-conservative Gingrich insisted that crime prevention proposals were "pork."
The Grand Old Party's anticrime proposal of 1995 included a provision that would require violent criminals to serve 85 percent of their prison terms. Such hardline policies as determinate sentencing advocated by conservative Republicans have not been without their costs, however, resulting in a U.S. prison population proportionately larger than that of any other country.
Besides seeking to cut federal money for crime prevention, conservatives in Congress, especially the authors of the Contract with America, sought to alter President Clinton's "community policing" drive to emphasize hiring more police officers and buying more crime-fighting hardware.
But the Clinton administration resisted the attacks on its crime policies. Attorney General Janet Reno, appointed by President Clinton, has argued forcibly for the effectiveness of community policing, adding that it has the overwhelming support of the public. Other major points of contention over crime policy during the mid 1990s included search and seizure rights and, as always, the level of federal aid.
In 1995, after reports showed the overall level of crime declining slightly for the third year in a row, President Clinton set up a National Commission on Crime Control and Prevention and charged it with developing a strategy for controlling and preventing crime and violence.
As the presidential election of 1997 approaches, the issue of crime -- whether it focuses on drug control, prison sentences, or prevention -- promises to remain an issue of paramount social importance that will continue to distinguish the ideologies of the Republican Party from those of the Democratic Party.
Bacon, Donald C.; Davidson, Roger H.; Keller, Morton; editors. The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Barnes, Fred. "Dopey." The New Republic, May 23, 1988.
Feeley, Malcolm M. and Sarat, Austin D. The Policy Dilemma: Federal Crime Policy and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
Harris, Richard. Justice: The Crisis of Law, Order, and Freedom in America, New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1970.
Porter, Kirk H. and Johnson, Donald Bruce. National Party Platforms: 1840-1964, Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1966.
Tromanhauser, Edward D. The Shaping of Crime Policy, Chicago: The Union Institute, 1990.
Gest, Ted. "Congress and Cops." U.S. News & World Report. December 26, 1994.
See The Nation magazine for clear-headed political commentary on current affairs and policy.