In the Ninieties, America was gripped by a fear of violent crime. The Crime Bill (aka The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act) was on the Senate floor being debated. The largest crime bill in the history of the United States, it provided for 100,000 new police officers and $9.7 billion in funding for prisons. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took the floor for 3-minutes and argued that efforts to tackle crime are worth nought if there’s no accompanying effort to tackle inequality, the lack of opportunities and economic exclusion.
Inspired by Vox’s guide to talking with family at Thanksgiving about politics, I wanted to add a few thoughts to what we should think about everyone’s favourite kinda-unlikely candidate for President.
First, what Sanders said:
A society which neglects, which oppresses and which disdains a very significant part of its population—which leaves them hungry, impoverished, unemployed, uneducated, and utterly without hope, will, through cause and effect, create a population which is bitter, which is angry, which is violent, and a society which is crime-ridden. This is the case in America, and it is the case in countries throughout the world.
Mr. Speaker, how do we talk about the very serious crime problem in America without mentioning that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, by far, with 22% of our children in poverty and 5 million who are hungry today? Do the Members think maybe that might have some relationship to crime? How do we talk about crime when this Congress is prepared, this year, to spend 11 times more for the military than for education; when 21 percent of our kids drop out of high school; when a recent study told us that twice as many young workers now earn poverty wages as 10 years ago; when the gap between the rich and the poor is wider, and when the rate of poverty continues to grow? Do the members think that might have some relationship to crime?
Mr. Speaker, it is my firm belief that clearly, there are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them. But it is also my view that through the neglect of our Government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence. And Mr. Speaker, all the jails in the world–and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country–and all of the executions in the world, will not make that situation right. We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails. Mr. Speaker, let us create a society of hope and compassion, not one of hate and vengeance.
I don’t see eye-to-eye with Sanders on all matters related to criminal justice, but he’s my preferred 2016 Pres. candidate is so far he’s called for a complete disbandment of private prisons, he’s spoken out against police brutality and he ties crime to education; short story–he’s interested in root causes. Sanders tactic is to move talk about crime into talk about economics, quickly. As a democratic socialist, for decades, Sanders’ closing remarks and underlying message has been that everything that is faulty in America stems from inequality and from extreme poverty. I understand that, most see the argument, some agree.
Unfortunately, most who identified crime and deviance as a problem in recent decades, have decided the solution was not more public school funding, higher wages, more social services. No, they decided the answer was policing, courts and prisons. The degree to which Sanders’ logic of economic-underpinnings to social behaviour/crime can be debated, but we shouldn’t debate that the opposing view that more discipline and punishment would tackle crime has proven not to be the case.
I agree with Sanders that prisons are a symptom of a society. Prisons exist because society has run out of ideas and, frankly, run out of patience for those who disrupt and disobey the one-size-fits-all expectations of a 20th century empire in decline and denial. Prison also cater for a society that has run out of jobs.
The Crime Bill was not a good thing. It’s a stain on Bill Clinton’s presidency, but I don;t think that it will, or should, effect Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Paradoxically, it could hurt Sanders. While he opposed the 94 Crime Bill in debate Sanders was a “good democrat and voted for it.
Sanders is the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton running for the Democratic nomination. Clinton was bought decades ago. Sanders’ is more daring in the reforms he proposes and he is not in the pocket of corporate America. Sanders talks about a broader response to our fears and I can get behind that. Now, as in 1994, we cannot build prisons as a way out of an inequal society. To the contrary, prisons drive and deepen the schism between the haves and the have-nots.