E.J. Dionne: Crime down; so is support for death penalty

By E.J. DIONNENovember 17, 2013 

WASHINGTON -- Tired of gloom and ceaseless talk of American decline? Me too. So let's celebrate an important way in which the United States has become stronger -- and a genuinely kinder and gentler nation.

That last phrase, used by George H. W. Bush in 1988 when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, has become a cliche. But it was also a pledge. And in the years since, our country has lived up to that promise when it comes to reducing violent crime.

Over the last three decades, we have made great strides in battling lawlessness. Because of this, we are less inclined to insist on retributive justice. We are more open to reforming prisons, criminal sentencing and policing itself. And many more of us are prepared to repeal the death penalty.

In quieter political circumstances, a report from the Gallup organization last month might have drawn the attention it deserved. The firm found that support for the death penalty had dropped to its lowest point in more than four decades. At its peak, endorsement of capital punishment stood at 80 percent in 1994. Now, only 60 percent of Americans favor it.

Not since 1972, when Gallup found 57 percent support, has backing for the death penalty been this low. The last time that a plurality of Americans opposed it, according to Gallup, was 1966 when 42 percent favored capital punishment and 47 percent were opposed.

Those dates are no accident. The public's sympathy for the death penalty did not rise steadily after 1966 because our nation developed a new and abstract taste for vengeance. Many turned to the death penalty out of frustration with the criminal justice system and as a direct response to increasing fear of crime.

That fear was not paranoia. Beginning in the late 1960s, the country experienced a crime wave that shook all aspects of American life, including our politics. It turned "law and order" into a potent electoral issue, made "soft on crime" judges a prime target of mass ire (thereby enabling a broader attack on liberal jurisprudence), and created the pro-death-penalty surge.

Take a look at these numbers, a measure of murders and non-negligent manslaughter incidents per 100,000 people:

1960 5.1

1970 7.9

1980 10.2

1990 9.4

2000 5.5

2012 4.7

This represents enormous progress -- or, if you will, a restoration of the order we enjoyed a half-century ago. Before we get too giddy, it is worth noting that our gun homicide rate is 10 to 20 times higher than that of comparable nations. (The figure varies, depending on which countries you decide are "comparable" to the U.S.) If we wanted to become even kinder, gentler and less violent, we would enact sane gun regulations of the sort that prevail in other democratic nations. And we should.

Nonetheless, consider first how dreadful the political climate in our country would now be if we still had the rates of violent crime we suffered from in, say, 1980. And because the crime issue has so often been racialized in our discourse, imagine how much worse the already bitter polarization in our country could become.

As it is, falling crime rates mean that prison and sentencing reforms are among the few matters on which there is a real prospect for cooperation across partisan and ideological lines. Attorney General Eric Holder has made them central goals.

But so have a significant number of conservatives and libertarians. Ponder this sentiment: "The United States now has 5 percent of the world's population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners. Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control."

This is a common complaint of liberals, but those words are from Richard Viguerie, the veteran conservative activist who is a leader of Right on Crime. The conservative group, Viguerie wrote last spring, is devoted to a variety of forward-looking measures, including "community-based programs rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentencing policies and prison expansion." Why can't we make this happen?

Notice as well that New York City's mayor-elect, Bill de Blasio, was able to call "stop and frisk" police policies into question during his successful campaign precisely because New Yorkers feel more secure now than they did two decades ago.

There shouldn't be any complacency about crime. All the gains in social generosity will be lost if we confront another spell of violence. And with better gun laws, we could drive crime rates even lower. But we should acknowledge progress when we see it, and build on it.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post. Email, ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

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