“Tough on Crime”: Republicans Pin Midterm Hopes on Tired Trope

Collage of newspaper headlines talking about a rise in crime in America. The headlines are laid on top of an American flag. Image Description: Collage of newspaper headlines talking about a rise in crime in America. The headlines are laid on top of an American flag.

Summary: The midterms are upon us, and the Republicans have pinned their hopes on a tried and true fear tactic: Crime. It’s a winning narrative. Always has been. The data paint another picture entirely, however. While in no way excusing criminal activity or minimizing its impact upon individuals, families and society, we need to have an honest discussion about fear mongering and scapegoating. So let’s take a bite out of crime.

Chapter One

Dispelling Crime Mythology

We covered the punitive carceral measures and anti-welfare reforms that took place during the Clinton administration. This was the true tough-on-crime era characterized by figures like Rudy Giuliani and Bernie Kerik in New York City and the popular broken windows theory. Stop and frisk. Three strikes. Mandatory minimums. Loss of enfranchisement, public housing and other welfare benefits for offenders.

When crime began to drop precipitously in the 1990s, hardliners were quick to point to these policies as proof of success. The only problem is that the numbers were already in steep decline by the time these policies were passed and fully implemented.

In the decade of the ‘90s, violent crime dropped by 28% and property crimes dropped by 26%. By the late ‘90s, when crime and welfare policies took hold, incarceration rates spiked dramatically, consigning a generation of black and brown people to further poverty, dissociation and mental and physical health issues from the stress of broken families and lives.

In the first decade of the millennium, the national incarceration rate increased only 1% higher than the end of the ‘90s, when incarceration skyrocketed. And yet, violent crime decreased another 27% and property crime decreased 25%.

There were other theories. Like the prohibition of leaded gasoline. The Brennan Center’s seminal report in 2015 allows space for this idea, while explaining the difficulty in measuring outcomes on this specific point. Freakonomics famously put forward the idea that the ‘90s was the first decade that Roe v. Wade was fully recognized. Meaning, children who would otherwise have gone on to commit violent crimes as adolescents and young adults weren’t around because they were aborted. Perhaps the most cynical explanation ever offered. This theory has been largely debunked because, while the United States was experiencing a decline in crime, so was the rest of the industrialized world. And, as much as we like to think that our legislative policies carry throughout the world, they don’t.

What the Brennan Center determined was that a combination of increased policing, high employment, decreased alcohol consumption, income growth and an aging population were the largest contributors to the decline in crime nationally. Huh. So when you provide protection for communities, offer treatment for addiction and foster employment growth so people can earn a dignified income, crime goes down. Whoodathunkit?

Even with rising income inequality and stagnant wages, this demonstrates that, when basic needs are met, most humans aren’t inclined to break with societal norms and the law.

Chapter Two

When All Else Fails

Lee Zeldin on Fox News, 10/17/2022:

“From cashless bail and other pro-criminal laws passed up in Albany to district attorneys like Alvin Bragg refusing to enforce the law and a lack of support for law enforcement. People are reading these stories of individuals being pushed onto subway tracks or stabbed and otherwise targeted on our streets — and it’s not just inside of this city, it’s been across other parts of the state the last couple weeks.”

That’s shitgibbon and New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin hammering home the big GOP talking point. As Unf*ckers know, I’m no fan of our incumbent unelected governor Kathy Hochul, who steals from indigenous tribes and makes backroom deals for big money supporters. She fucking sucks.

But Zeldin is a “Big Lie” election denying Trump shill who voted against the Women’s Protection Act, background checks for weapons purchases, a pathway to citizenship for DACA kids, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and certifying the Presidential election. That’s what he did in Congress. As for what he would do if elected governor, Zeldin wants to increase fracking in New York State, eliminate any curriculum in New York schools that involves race discussions, open more correctional facilities, remove restrictions on solitary confinement and expand the number of charter schools.

But the big one, the thing he’s really hanging his hat on is repealing bail reform in New York State. This is the big ticket item that Republicans all across the country are pinning their hopes on, whether it involves their state or not.

In some ways, this is a sensible political gambit in New York. New York City has seen an increase in crime since the beginning of the pandemic. Some of that is born out by statistics. Some of it is anecdotal, with some justice advocates claiming that the NYPD is trying to prove a point through lack of enforcement. Sort of a punishment for the Black Lives Matter movement.

So let’s drill into this a bit to separate fact from hyperbole. First, crime is up compared to pre-pandemic levels all across the country, and New York is no exception. We’ll talk about the rest of the country in a moment, but let’s focus on New York as it has become a focal point for Republican ads even in other states, because New York and California were the most high profile states to move forward with bail reform.

In pure numbers, here’s Newsweek’s analysis of crime statistics directly from the NYPD over a 30 year period. In New York City, there were 2,245 homicides in 1990. The last 12 months, 327. In 1990, there were 527,000 criminal complaints registered with the NYPD. The last 12 months, 95,000. Rape is down 65%. Robberies down 85%. Felony assaults down 55%. Burglaries down 50%. And remember that these are absolute figures, and we’ve added 1.5 million people since then.

The 12 month trailing figures are higher than they were pre-pandemic. But the progress made in reducing crime is undeniable for all of the reasons stated earlier. Addiction services, more policing, an aging population, high levels of employment. From these metrics, the two big changes during the pandemic were increases in substance abuse and a reduction in active policing on the streets. According to Republican campaign ads, the biggest change was bail reform. So let’s talk about it.

Steve Kornacki on MSNBC, 10/22/2022:

“There’s another issue though, that Republicans have been emphasizing and may be gaining some traction. And that is the issue of crime here. It’s an interesting way to look at it. This is a Pew poll that came out this week, taking a look at issues that Republican seem to have their biggest strengths here. These are issues that voters say, in their words, are very important to them in terms of making up their minds in the midterms. Again, not surprisingly, you see the economy is very high. Look what’s second on this list. It’s violent crime.”

First off, what is bail reform?

There are several aspects to it, but the most visible change that has Republican lawmakers and police departments on the offensive is the elimination of bail for low level offenders. For a little context on this, here’s an excerpt from a News Beat article on the bail reform movement to help understand why criminal justice advocates were pushing for this for decades.

“Nearly two-thirds of the United States’ jail population consists of people who have not been found guilty of a crime. And the majority of defendants are detained inside county jails, which own 87 percent of jails nationwide, at a cost of $9 billion annually on pre-trial detention. California, a supposed liberal beacon, imposes the largest monetary load on its pretrial jail population, which accounts for 60 percent of jailed inmates in the state. With a median bail amount of $50,000, the Golden State has the unpleasant distinction of imposing an average bail amount that is five times the national average.


“On average, 400,000 Americans each year choose to remain in jail until trial, simply because the cost of freedom is astronomically high. Meanwhile, a wealthy individual with a similar bail amount can pay the fee to the court and walk out until their trial date. Their riches afford them the opportunity to prepare a worthwhile defense.”

So New York and California, as the prime examples held out on the right, worked to reduce the inequity of the bail system. By the way, there are only two countries on the planet that have a cash bail system. The United States and the Philippines.

California was the first to fully eliminate cash bail, but they weren’t the first to introduce bail reform. Kentucky, New Mexico and New Jersey had all made significant strides to reduce the onus on low level offenders in an attempt to prevent hardship prior to receiving due process. Since California enacted its measures, Illinois, Nebraska, Indiana and New York have all followed suit with varying degrees of reform. So that’s eight states out of 50. And yet, Republicans are claiming that progressive prosecutors are running rampant and letting offenders out of prison all across the country and endangering the lives of law-abiding citizens everywhere.

Beyond the simple fact that reform is brand new and only in eight out of 50 states, there’s an important piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked. According to StopRecidivism.org:

“New York is the newest state to eliminate pretrial detention and cash bail. Their law went into effect on January 1, 2020, eliminating pretrial detention and cash bail for an estimated 90% of arrests. Under the new law, a cash bail is no longer an option for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. For individuals charged with serious crimes like violent felonies, sex offenses and witness tampering, little has changed and the ability to enforce cash bail will still lie with the courts.”

Non violent offenders sitting in jail awaiting trial, meaning they’re being held under the presumption of innocence, have had their lives ruined for decades under this system. All because they couldn’t afford to post thousands of dollars in bail, let alone manage a reasonable paid defense. The number of people, mostly black and brown, who had seen their livelihoods ruined as a result of this one bullshit quirk of the American justice system, is staggering. And that’s just while in detention.

The pain doesn’t end there:

  • Most of those detained wind up pleading to charges and serving time because they are simply out of options to defend themselves.

  • Beyond the loss of income that accompanies any level of incarceration, there are the new challenges that mount once on the outside.

  • As we know from the Clinton era, certain public benefits are no longer available to those convicted of a crime, even if they only plead guilty to eradicate themselves from the system at some point.

  • These newly minted felons struggle to find housing, employment and are denied certain welfare benefits.

But the point that’s most overlooked is that cash bail reform, even in a state as aggressive as New York, still only applies to misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The courts are still able to enforce cash bail for anyone suspected of a violent felony and sex crime. And that’s a good thing. But the outcry over letting violent offenders out of prison is simply a lie.

Are there low level offenders who go on to commit violent crimes? Yes. Just as there are those who have never committed a crime before who go on to do the same thing. So, unless we’ve perfected the Minority Report “Precrime” alert system, then we need to get our facts straight.

There is no rationale that supports ruining people’s lives with cash bail when the data show that communities of color are disproportionately affected and lives are ruined.

Chapter Three


Maybe it’s because I’m in a toss up district and a state with a high profile gubernatorial race, but every email, flier in my mailbox, ad on my screen and on my television makes it seems like The Purge is in full effect.

Okay, so there are some parts of the country that are experiencing high levels of violent crime. The per capita figures are troubling. Let’s look at the top states.

According to the CDC’s most recent statistics, the top six states for homicides per capita are Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama. Five out of six of these states have a Republican trifecta government. Only Louisiana has a Democratic governor, but it has a full Republican legislature. In other words, the states with the highest incidents of violent crimes and homicides per capita are deeply red states in complete Republican control.

Let’s listen to the nation’s seeping leather cheerio dramatically insert some coded and some overtly bigoted ideas into the vacuous minds of Fox News consumers to better understand how this plays out in right wing media.

Warning. The excerpt you are about to read is fucking stupid.

Tucker Carlson on Fox News, 9/13/2022:

“Where’s the constituency for violent crime in this country? Is there really one? Is there anyone for it other than, like, Kamala Harris and Ron Klain and the ideologues that run this country? Most people are not for it. Even most Democrats are not for it. The “SAFETY Act” of Illinois stands for safety, accountability, fairness and equity today.


“So, the reason they’re doing this is they didn’t like the demographic breakdown of the people who were getting arrested for crimes. Period. ‘This can’t be happening!’ Therefore they’re just going to redefine it away. It was ideologically inconvenient for them. So the solution is just to legalize murder and kidnapping and trespassing. And at the same time, you’re not allowed to notice that an awful lot of these cases appear to be…motivated by racial animus.”

The focus of this particular Fucker clip is, as usual, Chicago. Actually, during the lead-in to the segment, he takes great pains to point out a specific incident in a fancy suburb—i.e., a mostly white area. He gets in the token shot at Kamala Harris, which is strange considering she was one of the least progressive prosecutors in California before becoming a senator and then VP.

He makes sure to emphasize the word equity with his crooked little frat boy smirk. Then rationalizes changes to the criminal justice system as “woke” politicians not wanting to report that black people are the ones that commit crime, so we just won’t report crime anymore. Then claims that reverse racism motivates most crime and murder is now legal.

According to Nielsen, 3.1 million people tune in to hear what this twat waffle has to say. And then it amplifies from there. These talking points run through the halls of Fox and make their way onto programs like The Five, where they talk about violent crime in D.C. committed by black people, of course.

Or on Jesse Watters’ show, where he excoriates democratically run cities filled with black people. (Not the statistically meaningful crime leading states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, South Carolina and Missouri.)

And, to make sure they’re not taking chances, this narrative can be found on sister channel Fox Business.

Then, the anecdotes make their way through to the podosphere on shows like Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin.

I’m not trying to torture you or belabor the point. I’m just trying to hammer home the effectiveness of right wing messaging.

Message: Violent crime is running rampant in democratically run cities, and Biden and Kamala want to bring that type of lawlessness to your town.

Playbook: (1) Grab social media video of black person appearing to engage in criminal activity; (2) cut to crime expert who says it’s only getting worse in our cities; and (3) point to the only thing that could have possibly changed: liberal prosecutors funded by George Soros letting criminals run free because of bail reform.

Stats be damned. Facts be damned.

Remember that Lee Atwater left all the breadcrumbs we need. Nixon ran on a law and order platform and won. Reagan manufactured the War on Drugs industry from the seeds Nixon planted. And won. Clinton left the campaign trail to execute Ricky Ray Rector just to prove Democrats aren’t soft. Then he went on to pass historic crime legislation that decimated black communities across the nation. And so it goes. It’s a winning formula; not just in America, but everywhere in the world.

With all the talk about stealing elections, understand that this is how Republicans plan to steal this one. And they just might succeed.

Crime is an all of us problem.

Stop the midterm steal.

For the love of everything, vote.

Here endeth the lesson.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).