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Who launched mass incarceration and militarized policing? A progressive hero

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The “tough on crime” approach to policing and criminal justice wasn’t driven by Republicans alone ­— it began as a liberal idea.

It didn’t start among liberal policy wonks, either; its beginnings lead to Lyndon Johnson, a president revered among progressive Democrats.

Historian Elizabeth Hinton “argues that the current regime of militarized policing and mass incarceration, which has done so much to suppress the opportunities for African Americans, was set into motion by a liberal hero — Lyndon Johnson, the same president who signed the Civil Rights Act and who oversaw the greatest expansion of social services since the New Deal,” according to The Washington Post.

It’s easy to lambast political opponents for current problems. It’s much harder to confront historical fact and accept deeper, bipartisan blame.

Responding to race riots and “demographic forces” that sent African Americans to northern cities for work and an escape from southern racism, LBJ saw “tough policing” in black communities as part of the War on Poverty.

“By 1965, Johnson had formulated a new initiative, what he called a “War on Crime.” He sent to Congress a sweeping new bill that would bulk up police forces with federal money and intensify patrols in urban areas,” Jeff Guo wrote. “This would be the first significant intrusion of the federal government into local law enforcement, and it was the beginning of a long saga of escalating surveillance and control in urban areas.”

It was also the prelude to the militarization of the police. Johnson designed the blueprints for a “tough on crime” approach followed by Democratic and Republican administrations ever since.

“Crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined,” Hinton wrote.

Criminal justice and police tactics haven’t always been such partisan issues. Now, calls for criminal justice reform can be found from the leftist leanings of Bernie Sanders to conservatives who want to end the death penalty. That might be a sign of hope for reformers, but it’s an opening as much as a wall. If the reformers are bipartisan, so are those who support the status quo. The era where one party can claim the other is “soft on crime” has ended.


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