"But what if the policies implemented in the name of public safety were doing the opposite? What if they were generating insecurity for many of us?"

By Shari Stone-Mediatore, Ph.D.

Protecting the safety of our communities is a genuine concern for many Americans. But what if the policies implemented in the name of public safety were doing the opposite? What if they were generating insecurity for many of us?

Since the 1970s, public safety in America has been pursued through “tough-on-crime” policies: stiff criminal codes, long prison sentences, laws that facilitate police search and seizure, laws that make it more difficult to challenge a wrongful conviction, and stringent parole boards. As a result, more than 2 million Americans are now warehoused in U.S. jails and prisons. Nearly 160,000 of them are sentenced to spend their entire lives behind bars, some for crimes committed (or allegedly committed) when they were under 18.

Studies do not show that tough-on-crime policies have improved security. And, in some ways, tough-on-crime policies have made Americans insecure. For instance, laws that make it easier to arrest for gang activity and loitering have put people from low-income neighborhoods at risk of arrest for activities as benign as standing by their apartment with friends or waiting for a bus.

Aggressive prosecution also has backlogged criminal courts, requiring people without bail to be kept in dangerous jails for long periods (sometimes years) as they wait for trial. Indigent people are receiving increasingly inadequate legal counsel, because the number of public defenders has not increased to serve the greatly increased number of people being prosecuted. Meanwhile, recent laws restrict a person’s ability to challenge a wrongful conviction, even when it is due to clear attorney negligence.

Within prisons, prisoners have little protection against abuse. Beatings, shootings, macing, and rape of prisoners by guards are censored from public view. Even in the rare cases when videotapes of such incidents are leaked to the public (as, for instance, in the case of Kalief Browder), guards are rarely held accountable. With little accountability, guards can also send an imprisoned person to solitary confinement for years or even decades. Over 80,000 Americans are now confined to solitary units, where they spend 23 to 24 hours a day alone in cells that are no larger than 8 by 10 feet, in conditions that by United Nations standards constitute torture. These units also threaten public safety insofar as the guards who work there exhibit high levels of alcoholism and spouse abuse.

It’s easy for those of us in more privileged groups to be indifferent to the plight of people who are incarcerated. Unless we pursue an incarcerated “pen-pal” or volunteer to teach in a prison (for which we can be dismissed for being “inmate friendly”), we likely will never communicate with a prisoner. We can forget that these are human beings—sometimes people who are dangerous and need to be contained—but often the mentally ill, young adults whose only family have been gangs,  and people without adequate legal representation. Not hearing their voices or knowing their stories, we can reduce them to stereotyped images of thugs or “bad hombres” whom we can lock up, strip of legal protections against violence by prison officers, and forget.

The American image of the “monster-criminal” has a specific history. The notion of essentially malignant beings who stands opposed to respectable society has roots in the 19th-century criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who used now-discredited notions of racial and sexual difference to theorize “the criminal man.” This notion was reimagined in America in the 1970s, when politicians found it useful to raise the specter of “the criminal” to promote an agenda of aggressive incarceration that served both to detract attention from social problems and to control disgruntled social groups.

Today, the image of “the monster-criminal” is popularized by the news media, which sensationalizes the abjection of people in police custody. Videos of handcuffed defendants paraded before news cameras and objectified mugshots reduce defendants to debased “others,” even before their trials.

The American fascination with “monster-criminals” even reveals itself in the recent trend of Halloween haunted houses that advertise themselves as “haunted prisons” and offer costumed “convicts” for Halloween entertainment.

America’s “monster-criminal” is class- and race-specific. For instance, African Americans do not use or sell drugs any more than whites but are targeted by police and incarcerated for drugs at much greater rates. According to a new study of Chicago’s criminal courts, stark class divisions between court professionals and people in custody have allowed judges and attorneys to refer to defendants as “scum,” “bad guys,” and “mopes” (an epithet signifying lack of work ethic and inherently culpability), even before their trials.

Tellingly, tough-on-crime practices are rarely applied to people of more privileged groups. When the privileged are arrested, their crimes tend to be distinguished as “white-collar crimes.” They tend to receive limited sentences in federal prisons, upon completion of which they are called “former white-collar criminals.” More than a few have been invited to speak about business ethics at major universities. This has allowed people like Walter Pavlo (convicted of a $6 million fraud scheme) to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees while it has spared many of us from imagining someone like ourselves as a “bad person.”  

The same opportunity to learn from mistakes and re-integrate into society is not afforded to less privileged people, whose brushes with the law often earn them decades-long sentences and permanent demonization.

When we recognize how our own cultural processes have conjured up “the monster-criminal” and how our social reality blurs the lines between victim and criminal, law and violence, our tough-on-crime policies seem to offer only a charade of safety. Behind the charade are tough questions about how we can achieve genuine security for all Americans.


Shari Stone-Mediatore is Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan Univeristy. She is the author of Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).