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  • Haley Filippine

The return to tough-on-crime: The media’s role in rolling back reform.

Rising homelessness, shoplifting and staggering gun violence have dominated headlines and social media feeds across the United States in 2023. The increased media attention around non-violent crimes particularly in U.S. cities has stoked public fear and catalyzed the implementation of reactive policies by public officials. Studies have shown a close connection between the rhetoric used to describe those involved in the criminal legal system and the legislation directly impacting it. Cities that once spearheaded research-based criminal justice reform are now returning to the reactionary and racist policies that catalyzed mass incarceration in the U.S. and defined the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1980s and 1990s. 


Notably, the D.C. City Council recently voted on the “Secure D.C.” bill, which aims to crack down on crime in the city by implementing harsher sentencing policies and targeted law enforcement. Many of the provisions outlined in the bill infringe on civil liberties, claiming a necessity to curb a recent spike in crime. Provisions include collecting DNA before criminal conviction, prehearing detention for juveniles and the ability for Metropolitan Police to designate drug-free zones at their discretion, which would criminalize gatherings and loitering in perceived criminal “hot-spots.” This legislation comes only a few years after criminal justice advocates applauded the D.C. Council’s action on increasing police accountability measures after the murder of George Floyd in 2020


The District is not alone in its return to tough-on-crime policies. Many states have begun to roll back progressive legislation and criminalize nonviolent behaviors in response to increased crime coverage by the media and social endemics. But is crime in cities across the United States as bad as the media makes it out to be? And if so, is returning to tough-on-crime policies the solution? 


Although the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported a decrease in violent crime in 2023, politicians have championed new legislation that severely reduced the advances made by activists because of a perceived “crime problem.” Even though D.C. is an outlier to this national trend, posting an increase in violent crime in 2023, the provisions included in the Secure D.C. bill are reflective of the reactive policies aimed at appeasing public opinion instead of promoting public safety. Also, returning to “reality” post-COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the livability of U.S. cities. Rising homelessness, drug addiction and petty crime have dominated media headlines, likely contributing to public perception that there is a crime problem in the U.S. that must be curbed. 


The homelessness population in cities has increased due to inflation, increased housing costs and the ever-shaky job market with minimal government programming or funding to help the situation. Many state legislatures have responded to this issue by criminalizing homelessness in an effort to incarcerate away the issue instead of devoting resources to a long-term solution. Mainstream media outlets have largely contributed to rationalizing this strategy by sensationalizing the homeless problem in the U.S. and equating the rise in crime with the rise in the homeless population. However, jails and prisons are ill-equipped to address many of the issues that cause homelessness. Therefore, incarceration likely will not reduce the homeless population in the U.S. and could make the problem worse. Incarceration is also a much more expensive solution; the estimated cost of incarcerating someone is $47,000 a year. Consequently, politicians’ solution to incarcerate away structural social and economic problems justified by the media sensationalism will be detrimental to the criminal legal system because it overwhelms the courts and jails, which are ill-equipped to help this issue. 


The opioid epidemic and fentanyl overdoses have additionally dominated the news cycle and burdened the criminal legal system. Dehumanizing rhetoric surrounding drug addiction and crime has had a significant impact on how drug crimes and crime in general are discussed. States’ responses to the media attention around this issue have closely mirrored the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Many of the recently passed sentencing policies for drug crimes indicate a renewed war on drugs.  Despite the benefit of research indicating that increased sentencing does not reduce drug use or recidivism for drug crime, many legislatures are making the same mistakes as they did in the 1980s because there is a social pressure to act. Again, these policies come only a few years after progressive legislation aimed at reducing the carceral population, like the First Step Act, which received bipartisan support in 2018. The recent federal legislation being discussed will walk back those policies and is demonstrative of a national trend toward criminalizing nonviolent behavior in response to public fear.


Turning back to tough-on-crime policies would be a mistake. Research demonstrates that these policies have a negative effect on the criminal legal system, including disproportionate incarceration of nonviolent offenders and even wrongful convictions with no benefit to public safety. Further, the integrity of the criminal legal system depends on practitioners’ ability to endure public criticism and scrutiny from the media while maintaining the pursuit of justice and upholding the rights of the people. The numbers show that, generally, there has not been a drastic increase in crime, despite what media outlets would suggest. Even if there has been a spike in crime as in D.C., tough-on-crime policies are empirically proven to be ineffective in addressing the issue and only cost taxpayers and overburden the courts. Therefore, criminal practitioners have a duty to maintain the principles of the criminal legal system despite public pressures by providing zealous representation or using their discretion to ensure fair charging and sentencing despite a shift in public perception.  


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