Tough on Crime

Last week, Expect Us protesters donned T-shirts with ‘bloody’ handprints and dipped their hands in red paint to symbolize the impact tough-on-crime legislation would have on communities of color. When looking back on decades of similar rhetoric in the United States, and its corresponding laws and policies, it does not take a rocket scientist to see these demonstrators have a point. 

And the reality of the situation should scare the shit out of you. 

This summer alone, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson did his fair share of fueling the fire of systemic racism in this country, and every coded piece of language, proposal and approval has served as kindling. Back in early July, Parson signed SB 600 into law. This controversial crime bill, fathered by Missouri State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville), increases mandatory minimums for a variety of sentences, eliminates possibilities of parole for anybody found guilty of — or who has pleaded guilty to — second degree murder, dangerous felony with a deadly weapon or who has committed a “dangerous” felony if they have previously been found guilty of a Class A or B felony. In addition, the bill makes it so one can be convicted of an offense based on intent to commit said act. In essence, merely conspiring to commit a felony is considered a Class C felony. 

If you can’t already see them, the very essence of the bill raises two red flags. On most simple terms, we all can cite instances of what we perceive as miscarriages of justice. We’ve all heard stories of individuals being coerced into confessing crimes they did not commit. We also know the U.S. legal system isn’t exactly the poster child for blind justice. Not only is color seen, it is a guiding factor in how a defendant is perceived by the judge, jury and media. 

Just last month, Parson called an emergency special session to discuss an “unprecedented wave of violent crime” in St. Louis and Kansas City. Although various aspects of the tough-on-crime package are steadily making their way through the House, it still isn’t fast enough for Parson.

“With each passing day, violent crime continues to escalate across Missouri, making it even more imperative that we act quickly,” he said in a statement. “We need to stay focused on what this is all about — fighting violent crime and making our communities safer.” 

But, at the cost of how many St. Louisans being locked up and separated from their families for offenses they may not have even committed — without possibility of parole — will we be “making our communities safer?” SB 600 itself would increase the prison population by 2,500 and cost taxpayers an added $16 million a year, according to the ACLU of Missouri. Now, imagine the further harm tough-on-crime legislation will do. 

The very language being used on the House and Senate floor is reminiscent of past failings that have had far-reaching consequences. Let’s start with Richard Nixon. Nixon’s own adviser, John Ehrlichman, laid it out plain and simple in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine: 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and Black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” 

Up next is Ronald Reagan, the man coined with inciting the ‘modern’ war on drugs. From 1970 to 1985, the U.S.’s prison population increased by a little over 67 percent, according to statistics presented in the “13th.” In just five years, when George Bush entered the scene, we saw a 64 percent increase in the U.S. prison population. The campaign’s use of Willie Horton, the heavily publicized criminal, was to showcase Bush’s tough-as-nails attitude toward crime. 

In more recent history, Bill and Hillary Clinton have both — at least partially — acknowledged their role in further escalating America’s mass incarceration problem. The documentary “13th” details California’s Three Strikes Law, and includes Bill’s explanation: “When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away and put away for good.” Sound familiar? That’s because SB 600 appears to borrow this idea. Mandatory minimums were imposed that diminished the weight of circumstances of each case — another mistake we see resurfacing in Missouri’s government. Finally, the documentary outlines how the 1994 Crime Bill (peep Biden) led to the militarization of local police departments and increased funding to prisons instead of rehabilitation programs. By the end of the 20th century, the U.S. prison population had grown to 2,015,300, and to yield what? 

Crime and mayhem is not solved by locking people up. As history shows, further tough-on-crime legislation will continue to disproportionately impact Black families and will not make any substantial difference in keeping the streets of St. Louis safe. Let’s stop further legislation before more irreversible damage is done. 

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