Can Democrats avoid 2022 ‘death wish’ by getting tough on crime?

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There are reasons why President Biden and most Democrats, including the Congressional Black Caucus, were once defenders of measures to fight crime and bolster the police. Just look at violent crime rates in the 1970s and ‘80s. Now, after several years of calls to “defund the police,” many Democrats want to appear tough on, or at least concerned about, crime once again — but for a different reason.

Long before the parade of superheroes that now fill the big screen, there was Paul Kersey (played by Charles Bronson).

In the 1974 film “Death Wish,” Bronson plays a successful New York City architect whose wife is murdered and daughter assaulted by three thugs. Reacting to the rampant crime wave that police either can’t or won’t stop, Kersey takes the law into his own hands. The film – and its four sequels, plus one 2018 remake – resonated with a public fed up with rampant crime, setting the stage for the 1994 crime bill cosponsored by none other than then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

Millennials and progressives need to know this history to understand why the 1994 crime bill, known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, passed with large bipartisan support. As the Brookings Institution’s Rashawn Ray and William Galston wrote in August of 2020, “According to a 1994 Gallup survey, 58% of African Americans supported the crime bill, compared to 49% of white Americans. Most Black mayors, who were grappling with a record wave of violent crime, did so as well.”

And they quote current House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) speaking about himself and Black communities: “They wanted it [crack cocaine] out of those communities, and they had gotten very tough on drugs. And that’s why yours truly, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, voted for that 1994 crime bill.”

Violent crime had been rising since the 1960s, and it was hitting Black communities the hardest.

As a graph from Statista shows, the violent crime rate (i.e., violent crime cases per 100,000 population) peaked at 758.2 in 1991. The following year the rate was only slightly lower. But then the rate began a precipitous decline over nearly three decades, with only 380.8 cases per 100,000 population in 2019.

But as with most sweeping legislation coming out of Congress, there were unintended consequences. The crime bill interacted with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created disparities in how crack cocaine and powder cocaine cases were treated. Since crack was more prevalent in low-income communities, convicted Blacks tended to receive harsher sentences.

Those disparities led to a backlash over unequal treatment of minorities that has only intensified in recent years.

With the tragic death of George Floyd, progressive politicians in several major cities raced to defund or cut funding for police departments and impose bail reform. Some just announced that certain crimes would not be vigorously prosecuted.

Criminals took that to mean that most crimes would not be pursued or prosecuted — and they were largely correct.

Now violent crime is on the rise again. And many (most?) Democrats know voters are worried about the spike. Some Democrats are abandoning, or at least downplaying, the defund-the-police rhetoric. White House press secretary Jen Psaki went so far as to claim it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who want to defund the police. No one is buying that yarn.

But that change in sentiment seems driven almost entirely by political concerns of a “blue crash” in the November election.

Democrats are right to be concerned. Most Black voters are still worried about crime and want a police presence in their neighborhoods. They may want changes both in policing and sentencing, but better policing isn’t the same as no policing. And appropriate bail isn’t the same as no bail.

Bronson’s character in “Death Wish,” Paul Kersey, put fear in the hearts of thugs and criminals. Today, the November election is putting fear in the hearts of Democrats precisely because they have refused to put fear in the hearts of violent thugs and criminals.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.

Tags 1994 crime bill 2022 midterm elections crime crime wave James Clyburn Jen Psaki Joe Biden Merrill Matthews New York City

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