The War that Never Ends?

Katzenbach was proven right. During the next three years violent crime escalated, major riots flared in almost every large city, and student protests erupted on many college campuses. Conservatives successfully conflated these disparate phenomena, leaving liberals at the mercy of the politics of law and order.

In desperation, Johnson created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which funneled federal dollars in large quantities to state and local police departments. It was part of the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which the president considered the worst bill he had signed in office, but he saw little choice.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Richard Nixon before his Presidential nomination in July, 1968.

Johnson’s action made little difference. By Election Day law and order was the most important domestic issue in the nation and conservative Republican Richard Nixon rode it into the White House, pledging that the “first civil right of all Americans is to be free from domestic violence.”

Three years later, facing re-election amid rising rates of violent crime, Nixon stated that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” and declared a War on Drugs in 1971. Although the hippie user and criminal addict now joined the black mugger or rioter as potent symbols of social disorder, the first measure imposed was urine testing on Vietnam veterans returning from Southeast Asia. The War on Crime had transformed into the War on Drugs.

In New York, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican, harbored presidential ambitions. Determined to bolster his law-and-order credentials and motivated by the violent uprising at Attica Prison, he signed legislation in 1973 that imposed steep minimum sentences for the possession and sale of heroin and cocaine.

Soon other states followed suit. The new laws swelled prison populations – most inmates are in state, not federal, facilities – and created a demand for ever-larger police forces.

By the mid-1970s conservative reservations about Johnson’s War on Crime had vanished. The political benefits of taking a “tough on crime” stance were clear and few objected to the federal government’s intervention in state and local affairs, perhaps because the bulk of LEAA funds were distributed as block grants to police departments in Republican suburbs, where voters were most plentiful, rather than to Democratic cities, where crime was most prevalent.

Radicals, however, voiced numerous criticisms of the LEAA.

For one, they argued that it had militarized policing by importing from Vietnam technologies and tactics like armored personnel carriers and urban SWAT teams. For another, radicals contended that promoting the concept of police professionalism reinforced the belief in police infallibility and eroded the credibility of police critics. Finally, they asserted that the LEAA was constructing a national police force with mass surveillance capabilities and stimulating a prison-industrial complex eager to pursue profits from privatization.

Outside academia the radical critique made little headway.

Ronald Reagan escalated the War on Drugs during his presidency. First Lady Nancy Reagan (above) headed one of the War on Drugs newly established "Just Say No" advertising campaigns.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan escalated the War on Drugs, which he contended was vital to national security. The White House militarized interdiction programs aimed at reducing the supply of marijuana and cocaine from Central America and promoted “zero tolerance” for narcotics users through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

The Reagan administration also supported the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which was enacted with bipartisan support from Republican conservatives like Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who wanted less judicial leniency, and Democratic liberals like Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted more racial fairness.

The legislation eliminated indeterminate sentencing for federal crimes and instituted a comprehensive grid of mandatory minimums. Within five years the average time served in federal prisons had doubled and the percentage of offenders who received probation instead of prison had fallen by half.

Despite Reagan’s focus on interdiction and incarceration, public anxiety over a supposed “crack crisis” grew in the 1980s.

To demonstrate that he was a “New Democrat” who was not soft on crime, President Bill Clinton warned that "gangs and drugs have taken over our streets" and– sounding like Goldwater, Johnson, and Nixon before him – stated that “the first duty of any government is to keep its citizens safe.”

Accordingly, Clinton signed the largest law enforcement bill in history in 1994. It expanded the number of federal crimes eligible for the death penalty and pumped billions of dollars to the states to hire 100,000 more police officers and build more prisons.

Declining Crime, Police, and Prisons Today

By the first decade of the 21st century, the social, economic, and political impact of the War on Drugs and “mass incarceration” was evident. As the Defense Department distributed surplus equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under the 1033 program, aggressive policing expanded the widespread criminalization of urban spaces and devastated minority neighborhoods.

Although the growth of public prisons brought some jobs and revenue to rural, usually white, communities, the proliferation of private prisons, as the radicals had predicted, generated sizable corporate profits. At the same time, the drive to create “factories with fences” and exploit prison labor eroded wage levels and weakened trade unions in certain industries.

Widespread felon disenfranchisement laws also stripped a basic right of citizenship from both prisoners and those who had already served their time, with important implications for liberals and conservatives. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, almost two million black men could not cast ballots – including more than a hundred thousand in Florida, where Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by a narrow margin.

Undated photograph of teenager, Trayvon Martin.

Twelve years later, an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who believed he was in danger and cited the state’s stand-your-ground law in his successful defense. Once again, the state was not unique – more than twenty others had similar laws, which in a sense represented the privatization of policing by individual citizens.

Yet even as advocates of stand-your-ground laws stressed their necessity, violent crime was on the decline – as it had been for twenty years. New York City, for example, had 1,444 homicides in 1970, 2,228 in 1980, and 2,605 in 1990. But in 2000, it had only 952 murders and by 2014 the figure had dropped to an astounding 328.

Why crime has declined so dramatically and consistently since the 1990s is a matter of debate among criminologists and policymakers. But it has led many Democrats and Republicans to reconsider their earlier commitment to a costly regime of prison expansion and mass incarceration.

“The judicial system has been a critical element in keeping violent criminals off the street,” said Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois recently. “But now we’re stepping back, and I think it’s about time, to ask whether the dramatic increase in incarceration was warranted.” Other senators, including Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have joined him in supporting reduced federal drug sentences.

In 2015, fifty years after Lyndon Johnson originally announced a War on Crime, a new consensus may have started to emerge. Perhaps the U.S. will now do what some urged during the Vietnam War – declare victory and pursue other priorities.

History suggests that it will prove difficult, given the partisan polarization of American politics and the risks of appearing soft on crime.

But rethinking the strategies behind the War on Drugs, altering the perceptions reinforced by it, and redeploying the resources committed to it might help prevent another generation of black men from spending their lives behind bars or losing their lives on the street like Michael Brown, James Powell, and Trayvon Martin.