The Politics of Criminal Justice

Politics is the process by which resources are distributed or allocated. As a famous political scientist once remarked, “Politics is who gets what, when, and how. ” Political considerations are a necessary but sometimes problematic part of criminal justice.

Politics of selecting decision makers

Criminal justice decision makers are selected through election or appointment. In some states, voters elect judges, while in other states, governors appoint them. In either case, the selection process is political. Lawyers who have performed political deeds for their party often become candidates for judgeships. As for federal judges, the president appoints them and the Senate confirms them. The political process profoundly influences the U.S. Supreme Court. Retirements from the Court and new appointments produce shifts in the Court's positions on criminal justice issues.

Politics of lawmaking

Perhaps the most important way that the democratic political system shapes criminal justice is through the lawmaking process: Politics influences the laws that legislatures enact. During the 1980s and 1990s, state legislators and the U.S. congressional representatives rushed to frame politically conservative get‐tough sentencing laws. These laws mandate longer sentences and fewer opportunities for parole. One lawyer who was instrumental in rewriting federal drug laws in 1986 and 1988 says the severe sentencing laws came about through whim and attempts by politicians to one‐up each other as drugs seized media headlines just before elections. “There was a level of hysteria that led to a total breakdown of the legislative process,” says the lawyer, Eric Sterling, who as lead attorney on the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary wrote the laws that established long mandatory sentences for several types of drug convictions.

What has resulted from two decades of get‐tough sentencing policy? The prison population has exploded. Costs of corrections have skyrocketed. The distribution of revenue within state governments has shifted in favor of allocating more money for prisons and less for education and other essential human services.

Politics and policing

Even though politics doesn't have a direct impact on the routine, daily decisions of police officers on patrol, the political culture of a community determines the style of law enforcement and the nature of departmental policy. Form of government (commissioner, mayor/council, city manager) makes a difference in the extent to which politics shape policing. Politics permeates police departments in cities that employ a mayor/council type of government. By contrast, a professional city manager makes political intervention into policing less likely.

Politics of prosecution

Political considerations influence prosecutors in a direct way. Prosecutors are elected in most states and are heavily involved in local politics. At the federal level, U.S. attorneys are political appointees and tend to mesh their career ambitions to the needs of their political party. Both state and federal prosecutors often use their office as a springboard for higher political office. Occasionally, an unscrupulous prosecutor will abuse power in the worst way: Acting on the basis of political motives, the prosecutor will engage in political prosecutions by pressing criminal charges against political enemies. A case can be made, for example, that independent counsel Kenneth Starr's conservative politics motivated his investigations of President Clinton's extramarital affairs during the late 1990s.

Politics of judicial decision-making

Judges experience tremendous political pressure. Questionable political influences come into play when judges are faced with the decision of whether or not to impose the death penalty. It isn't a coincidence that elected judges impose the death penalty at higher rates than appointed judges. This difference stems from elected judges' fear of appearing soft on crime. Refusing to impose the death penalty makes a judge vulnerable to attacks from political opponents who may use the judge's decision against him or her at the next judicial retention election.

Politics of corrections

Corrections officials also take political considerations into account. Politics can drive a parole board's release decisions. Parole board members are susceptible to influence from the governors who appoint them. Members almost inevitably make release decisions cautiously. If parolees commit crimes, the media, the governor's political rivals, or both may blame the governor.

Politicization of criminal justice

Serious problems for citizens and the criminal justice system can result from the politicization of criminal justice, a process through which political leaders seize opportunities to use criminal justice issues to enhance their own popularity, electability, or power. Politicization can be observed most readily in political campaigns in which law‐and‐order rhetoric is prevalent. When criminal justice issues become too politicized, politicians are tempted to engage in demagoguery, appealing to people's emotions, passions, and prejudices rather than to people's minds. Political demagoguery is the enemy of clear thinking about solutions to the crime problem.

Politics of stymie

Unnecessary political wrangling over criminal justice issues—which can happen when winning political skirmishes becomes more important to public officials than controlling crime and achieving justice—can cripple the justice process. One undesirable result is that the justice process grinds to a halt. The U.S. Sentencing Commission had no members for the last three months of 1998 because Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on selections to the seven slots on the commission. This commission, created by Congress in 1984, has as its main purpose the establishment of guidelines for meting out punishment for those convicted of federal crimes. It was started to reduce disparity in federal sentencing and to help develop effective and efficient crime policy.