Politically ambitious legislators and prosecutors.
Gonnerman accurately notes that New York State’s infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws – which established harsh mandatory minimums for people caught with small amounts of drugs on their persons, and which have since been reformed – were at least partially conceived because then-governor Nelson Rockefeller thought a tough-on-crime reputation might aid an eventual run for the White House. Rockefeller was never elected president, but his drug laws were not the reason why. As far as I can tell, no one has ever lost an election for being too tough on crime. Most prosecutors aren’t looking to run for president, but they are going to run for other offices, and they will always be forced to run on their records. A record that includes plenty of tough sentences is easier to tout and defend than a record filled with decline-to-prosecutes.
Existing state law and the perils of reactive legislation.
In 1994, California passed what’s known as the “three strikes” law, which mandated severe prison sentences for habitual criminal offenders facing their third felony conviction, no matter how petty the alleged crime. The state passed the law after 12-year-old Polly Klaas was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a career criminal who was out on parole. Today, 26 other states have passed “three strikes” laws of their own. As Slate’s Emily Bazelon and others have noted, these laws are falling out of favor; a 2012 ballot initiative reduced the severity of California’s three-strikes law, which had led to such absurdities as a man receiving a life sentence for stealing a pair of socks.
It’s one thing to amend these laws. It’s another thing to repeal them entirely, which hasn’t happened. More relevant, though, is what these laws say about our tendency to legislate reactively. Tough-on-crime policies often derive from ghastly, well-publicized incidents that seem to require a forceful, immediate governmental response. And, indeed, in 2012, Massachusetts became the most recent state to pass its own three-strikes law, after a police officer named John Maguire was killed by a habitual offender. If liberal Massachusetts is still passing three-strikes laws as late as 2012, then I’m not sure I buy the notion that sweeping, significant change is just over the horizon. It’s no longer a political death sentence to talk about criminal justice reform. That’s significant. But I think we’re still a long way away from saying that America is ready to stop being so tough on crime.
Justin Peters writes Slate’s crime blog.