Crime and Law Enforcement
The local, state, and federal governments in the United States all play an important role in fighting crime. Generally, the federal government sets the basic parameters of law enforcement and provides money and other aid to state and local agencies that then enforce the law.
The Politics of Crime
Some politicians campaign on a “law and order” platform, promising to crack down on crime and impose harsh sentences on those found guilty of committing crimes. Scholars debate the efficacy of government anticrime programs. During the 1990s, for example, violent crime fell dramatically. President Clinton and the Democrats claimed credit, citing the strong economy and the new crime bill passed in the early 1990s. Some critics, in contrast, point to other causes for the dip in crime, including demographics (the age groups most likely to commit violent crimes shrank) and the vast increase in the number of prisons. It is never easy to explain why the crime rate rises or falls.
Gun control refers to policies aimed at regulating the ownership and use of firearms. Proponents of gun control argue that tighter restrictions will reduce the number of guns on the streets and consequently decrease the amount of violent crime in the United States. Critics of gun control argue that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from regulating firearms because the Second Amendment states that citizens have the right “to bear arms.” Many critics also believe that gun control disproportionately affects law-abiding citizens because gun control laws will not deter the people who are most likely to commit crimes.
The War on Drugs
The federal government has made its War on Drugs a national priority since the 1980s because high drug use presents a public health concern and increases the violent crime rate. As part of this war, the government has passed laws imposing harsh sentences on drug dealers, and it has also acted to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the country.
Despite all the money spent and all the federal government’s efforts, drug use has not declined, as illegal drugs continue to flow into the United States, prompting some people to argue that the U.S. anti-drug policy has failed. Some critics even argue that the War on Drugs has created more problems than it has solved.
Example: Critics contend that the mandatory minimums and harsh sentences imposed on people for possessing even small amounts of illegal substances have contributed to overcrowding in prisons. In turn, prison overcrowding increases relapse rates; inmates are now more likely to commit crimes again because prisons are unable to provide adequate job training and counseling to all the inmates.
Although the federal government has not substantively changed its drug policies in decades, some state and local governments are experimenting with other methods of punishing those caught breaking the law. Some states do not imprison first-time offenders, for example, or those caught with a small amount of drugs. Instead, the state sends them to rehabilitation programs. It is still too soon to know what effect these policies have had on drug use and crime.