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Jeff Greenfield: Crime disappears as a political issue

Greenfield comments on how crime has disappeared as an issue in the presidential campaign. 

JEFF GREENFIELD: As you’ve heard, one of the reasons why the idea of prison alternatives has caught on across the political spectrum is that the crime rate in the United States has been dropping over the last two decades. But there’s another way to measure that fact: by the virtual disappearance of crime as a national political issue. In the decade of the 1960s, the violent crime rate more than doubled in America. And that, along with upheavals on campuses and in urban centers, helped propel what had been a local issue into the national political spotlight. In 1968, Richard Nixon made it a key theme in his campaign.

Twenty years later, as the crime rate kept rising, Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign was seriously, perhaps fatally damaged by the “Willie Horton” story.  Horton, a convicted  murderer, terrorized a couple while out on a weekend release program that Governor Dukakis had continued.  Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty was also a liability.

That may be why President Bill Clinton made sure to surround himself, often, with an army of men and women in blue–and to back capital punishment.

Now, for whatever reasons, longer sentences for career criminals, demographics, the easing of the crack epidemic — the national violent crime rate is at a 30-year low.  In New York, the crime rate is a little more than a fourth of what it was 20 years ago. The result? You just don’t hear much about crime anymore from people running for president. There are other reasons, of course. Economic security and international security have replaced personal security on the list of top concerns. But still, when it comes to the lack of political talk about crime, no news is good news.


  • Marilyn

    Lack of political talk about crime and the failing criminal justice and incarceration system is not good news.  The prison crisis negatively affects the quality of life for every American.

    We were once at the top of the Best Lists: Best Education, Best Health Care, Best Opportunities for Upward Mobility.  No longer.  We are way down on those lists.  Now, we are NUMBER ONE at locking up more of our citizens than any other country. There is a connection.

    Follow the money and the prison profiteers.

  • Joaparke

    Can you sometime talk about the relationship of lead paint and the decline in crime?  I was surprised that you did not mention that when reviewing the decline in crime.  There have been some pretty big studies that show that once new windows were installed in New York City that the crime later went down in those areas.
    Another study that I found interesting was the relationship between behavior in inmates and nutrition.  I wish I could remember where this study was conducted (I am thinking Upper Midwest), but what they did was feed the a high protein diet to prisoners and their behavior had dramatic improvements!  Later a school teacher repeated this study on the “behavior problems” classroom and also found that those students could not be discerned from any other child in that school by educators from outside the school! There also is a lot of talk about the relationship between sugar, behavior, and general health.  I would like to see more about a better America with better fed Americans!