Soft on Crime?

Politicians are addicted to crime. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives are all addicted to crime and the politics of fear.

I recently received a fundraising request from a liberal Democrat, a candidate whose positions and career I generally respect. In the request he accused the incumbent of being “soft on crime.” I realize that many of us might agree that it is wrong not to prosecute campaign finance violations—which was the context of the solicitation—but the phrase itself is toxic. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the causes and problems of mass incarceration. If a liberal Democrat will use “soft on crime” when he thinks it will motivate voters, then there is very little hope we will ever be “smart” on crime. 

“Soft on crime” is one of those “simple” phrases—like “truth in sentencing” or “three strikes and you're out”—that so oversimplify complex issues that they suck the life out of people. We see the consequences of “soft on crime” campaigns every time we visit men and women serving sentences without hope in Wisconsin's overcrowded prisons.

Any serious candidate should know better. Anyone running for public office should read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander details the causes and costs of keeping more than two million of our brothers and sisters behind bars, and keeping fathers of two million children in prison. Alexander explains that mass incarceration results from two explicit public policies: the war on drugs and tough-on-crime laws (like “truth in sentencing”) that have led to more people being put in prison for longer sentences with no chance for parole or time off for good behavior. 

Accusing your opponent of being “soft on crime” is a powerful weapon. It motivates voters by preying on their fears—sometimes realistic, but often inflated—of becoming victims of crime. The “soft on crime” charge often works, but it comes with a terrible cost. Candidates who get elected by being “tough on crime” mortgage their political and moral future and the future of the citizens they claim to serve. Having been elected by calling their opponents “soft on crime,” they know the power of the allegation. Once elected, they are compelled to do everything they can to show they will never be “soft on crime.” More prisons get built. Sentences get longer. Parole is denied. Pardons are refused. In the end, Wisconsin ends up spending more on prisons than on its world class university system or on health care, with no justifiable increase in public safety.

The candidate who wrote to me is not the first or last candidate to use the politics of fear to get elected. If good, smart, liberal candidates—who must know better—will use the charge, then the decision must be a simple “means justify the end” calculation.

The “means” may get them elected. But the “end” will be a continuation of Wisconsin’s sad history of mass incarceration, racial disparity and injustice because they will never be “soft on crime.” Unfortunately they will find it increasingly difficult to be “smart on crime” and smart is what we desperately need. 


Rev. Jerry Hancock JD M.Div.

Director, The Prison Ministry Project


Posted on July 1, 2014 at 10:16 am in Featured Content.

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