Americans change their minds on some issues. One of them is crime and punishment.
It's an interesting issue because, while it's sometimes a subject of discussion in national politics, state legislatures and governors, county prosecutors (usually elected and often prominent figures in their communities), and local government law enforcement handle it in a largely decentralized way.
Nonetheless, there are national trends. In the middle 1960s, as the civil rights movement made most Americans uncomfortably aware that they had been mistreating their black fellow citizens, or had been averting their gaze from that mistreatment, they also started to get softer on crime.
That may have arisen from an awareness that blacks -- specifically young, black males -- commit violent crimes in hugely disproportionate numbers. It is uncomfortable to say that out loud, which may be a good thing, but almost every adult American knows it's true.
In any case, in the 1960s American prison populations declined even as the numbers of crimes started rising from the very low levels of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Attitudes changed on capital punishment, too. Gallup has asked about that periodically from 1936 to 2012. The only year in which more Americans opposed than favored the death penalty was 1966.
So the result, not so much dictated by liberal elites but resulting from the decisions and actions of millions of decentralized citizens, was less aggressive -- and abusive -- policing, shorter sentences and lower prison populations.
Unfortunately, and probably not coincidentally, crime rates soared, roughly tripling between 1965 and 1975. There may have been other causes as well. Some have argued that exposure to lead paint, phased out in 1950 but still chipping off walls, may have played a role.
Crime plateaued between 1975 and 1995, spiking upward with the crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s. Crime -- or "law and order" -- became an issue not only in local and state politics but in national politics as well.
The Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in 1972, then allowed it in restricted form in 1976, when Gallup showed support of capital punishment had bounced back up to 66 percent, about the same as today.
The decentralized criminal justice system responded with mandatory minimum sentences for violent and drug crimes and prison populations expanded exponentially. Crime rates remained stunningly high, however, until Mayor Rudy Giuliani's computer- and accountability-policing methods reduced crime sharply in New York City.
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