Law and order (politics)

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In politics, law and order refers to demands for a strict criminal justice system, especially in relation to violent and property crime, through stricter criminal penalties. These penalties may include longer terms of imprisonment, mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, and in some countries, capital punishment.

Supporters of "law and order" argue that effective deterrence combined with incarceration is the most effective means of crime prevention. Opponents of law and order argue that a system of harsh criminal punishment is ultimately ineffective because it does not address underlying or systemic causes of crime.

"Law and order" is a recurring theme in political campaigns around the world. Candidates may exaggerate or even manufacture a problem with law and order, or characterise their opponents as "weak" on the issue, to generate public support. The expression also sometimes carries the implication of arbitrary or unnecessary law enforcement, or excessive use of police powers.

Political issue in the United States

"Law and order" was a powerful conservative theme in the U.S. in the 1960s. The leading proponents in the late 1960s were Republicans Ronald Reagan (as governor of California) and Richard Nixon (as presidential candidate in 1968). They used it to dissolve a liberal consensus about crime that involved federal court decisions and a pushback against illegal drugs and violent gang activity. White ethnics in northern cities turned against the Democratic party, blaming it for being soft on crime and rioters.[1]

First introduced by Barry Goldwater in his run for president in 1964, "law and order" punished Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats and propelled Reagan to the governorship in 1966 and Nixon to the White House in 1968.

Liberals, Flamm (2005) argues, were unable to craft a compelling message for anxious voters. Instead, liberals either ignored the crime crisis, claimed that law and order was a racist ruse, or maintained that social programs would solve the "root causes" of civil disorder, which by 1968 seemed increasingly unlikely and contributed to a loss of faith in the ability of the government to do what it was sworn to do—protect personal security and private property. Conservatives rejected the liberal notions. "How long are we going to abdicate law and order," House GOP leader Gerald Ford demanded in 1966, "in favor of a soft social theory that the man who heaves a brick through your window or tosses a firebomb into your car is simply the misunderstood and underprivileged product of a broken home?"

Flamm (2005) documents how conservatives constructed a persuasive message that argued that the Civil Rights Movement had contributed to racial unrest and Johnson's Great Society had rewarded rather than punished the perpetrators of violence. Conservatives demanded that the national government should promote respect for law and order and contempt for those who violated it, regardless of cause.

After Reagan took office in 1981 and started appointing tough conservative judges, the law became a weapon against crime. The number of prisoners tripled from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.5 million in 1994. Conservatives at the state level built many more prisons and convicts served much longer terms, with less parole. By the time they were released they were much older and thus much less violent.[2]

Ghetto Riots

Two developments were involved. After the murder of Martin Luther King, riots broke out in over 100 cities, with nights of violence against police and looting and burning of local white-owned businesses. The inner neighborhoods of many major cities, such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and New York, were burned out. National Guard and Army troops were called out. At one point machine gun units were stationed on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington to prevent rioters from burning it down. Every summer from 1964 through 1970 was a "long hot summer." [3][4][5][6]


Secondly there was a dramatic rise in violent street crime, including drug-related murders, as well as armed robberies, rapes and violent assaults. Inner city neighborhoods became far more violent and people tried to move out to safer ones. The number of violent crimes more than tripled from 288,000 in 1960 (including 9,110 murders) to 1,040,000 in 1975 (including 20,510 murders). Then the numbers levelled off.[7]

In response to sharply rising rates of crime in the 1960s, treatment of criminal offenders, both accused and convicted, became a highly divisive topic in the 1968 U.S. Presidential Election. Republican Vice Presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, then the governor of Maryland, often used the expression; Agnew and Nixon won and were reelected in 1972.[8]


Advocates of stricter policies toward crime and those accused of crime have won many victories since the issue became important. Highlights include stringent laws dealing with the sale and use of illicit drugs. For example the Rockefeller drug laws passed in New York state in 1973— and later, laws mandating tougher sentences for repeat offenders, such as the three strikes laws adopted by many states starting in 1993 and the re-legalization of the death penalty in several U.S. states.[8]

Opponents of these and similar laws have often accused advocates of racism. Civil rights groups have steadfastly opposed the trend toward harsher measures generally. The law-and-order issue caused a deep rift within the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and 1970s, and this rift was seen by many political scientists as a major contributing factor in Ronald Reagan's two successful Presidential runs in 1980 and 1984. In both elections, millions of registered Democrats voted for Reagan, and they collectively became known as "Reagan Democrats." Many of these voters eventually changed their party registration and became Republicans, especially in the South.[8]

Though violent crimes are the primary focus of law-and-order advocates, quality-of-life crimes are sometimes also included under the law-and-order umbrella, particularly in local elections. A tough stance on this matter greatly helped Rudolph Giuliani win two terms as mayor of New York City in the 1990s, and was also widely cited as propelling Gavin Newsom to victory over a more liberal opponent in San Francisco's mayoral election of 2003. Richard Riordan became Los Angeles's new mayor also in 1993 for the first time in 20 years, after Tom Bradley retired.

Platt (1995) argues that the intensity of law-and-order campaigns represents a significant shift in criminal justice that involves modernization and increased funding for police technology and personnel, privatization of security services and surveillance, higher rates of incarceration, and greater racial inequality in security and punishment.[9]

International issue

Crime has also become a prominent issue in Canadian, Australian, South African, France, and New Zealand politics, following the lead of the United States.


Critics of law-and-order politics commonly point to actual and potential abuses of judicial and police powers, including police brutality and misconduct, racial profiling, prison overcrowding, and miscarriages of justice. As an example, they argue that while crime in New York City dropped under Mayor Giuliani, reports of police brutality increased during the same period. This period included the fatal shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, and the Abner Louima incident.[10][11][12]

In extreme cases, civil unrest has broken out in retaliation against law-and-order politics, as happened in London's Brixton district in 1981, Los Angeles in 1992, France in 2005, and Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.[citation needed]

In 2009, Pennsylvania juvenile court judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan were pled guilty in the "kids for cash" scandal, of taking kickbacks from private prison industry officials in exchange for sentencing over 1,000 youths to prison terms for minor offenses.[13][14]

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a role model of tougher sentencing campaigners for his hardline corrections policies, was investigated by the FBI – starting in 2009 – for alleged abuses of power and intimidation of dissenting officials, among other controversies. [1] [2]

A United States Supreme Court ruling in 2011 ordered the state of California to cut its inmate population, citing prison overcrowding to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. [3]

See also


  1. Michael W. Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (2005).
  2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports (2009)
  3. Ann K. Johnson, Urban Ghetto Riots, 1965-1968 (1996)
  4. Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (2007)
  5. Robert M. Fogelson, Violence as Protest: A Study of Riots and Ghettos (1971)
  6. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report on Civil Disorders (1968), the famous the Kerner Commission Report
  7. FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Violent crimes included murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Source: Table Ec1-10 - Estimated crimes known to police, by type of offense: 1960-1997, in Susan Carter, ed. Historical Statistics of the United States Millennial Edition Online (2009)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Flamm, Law and Order (2005)
  9. Anthony M. Platt, "Crime Rave", Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, June 1995, Vol. 47#2 pp 35-46
  10. Rudy Giuliani Crime
  11. Jeffrey Feldman/Giuliani and violence
  14. "US judges admit to jailing children for money". Reuters. 22 February 2009. Retrieved 14 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Flamm, Michael W. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Hameiri, Shahar. "Governing disorder: the Australian Federal Police and Australia's new regional frontier," Pacific Review, Dec 2009, Vol. 22 Issue 5, pp 549-574
  • Niaz, Ilhan. "The Debate on Law and Order and Development: Pakistani Elite's Orientations," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies," Summer 2009, Vol. 32 Issue 4, pp 1-19
  • Platt, Anthony M. "The Politics of Law and Order," Social Justice Volume: 21. Issue: 3. 1994. pp 3+ online edition
  • Don Weatherburn. Law and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2004) 256 pp, ISBN 978-1-86287-532-6