I’m gonna go all newspaper article-y and explain it with this wall of text:
If I were to play pin-the-effect-on-the-cause, I’d pin the 90’s era crime wave firmly as a result of at least 4 major factors. (1)The mid-to-late 20th Century “tough on Crime” policies, particularly the ones that were enacted during the Nixon-Reagan-Clinton years, which lead to (2) the constriction and individuation of neighborhoods within slums and ghettos. Those two happening during (3) the rise of information technologies, like the cellphone, laptop, and pager, created a crazy new place for (4) people to begin creating echo-chambers, far from the general population. This lead criminals to commit all new crimes, and lawmakers to invent all new punishments, before anyone even knew the full extent and effect of the crimes and their punishments.
Or how this new informed system even worked.
Starting with the “Tough on Crime” policies in the mid-20th century, we see America making ever smaller infractions life-altering in scale. In 1920, a shoplifting charge was typically settled with the shoplifter paying restitution and being made to perform some community service. Often the offenders would settle out of court, just doing some task for the shop owner so as to make restitution. No matter how many times you got caught, you usually only had to pay fines, unless it was a large-ticket item.
In 1985, if you were convicted of misdemeanor shoplifting three times in California, it was a life sentence.
Couple harsher punishments with new anti-fugitive laws, were people with felony convictions can’t leave the country, even after their time is served, many states making it impossible to get drivers licenses, sign up for welfare, or take part in public services roles, not to mention the near impossibility of getting a leas for an apartment or a decent mortgage, and you have people getting desperate after just one conviction. Corporations, in keeping with the times, followed suit, and stopped hiring people with convictions, even if they had been reformed.
The only places they had to turn to for jobs or housing were the ever filling slums, were landlords didn’t care, and knew you wound’t try to sew.
One felony conviction was a life sentence to mediocrity. Three strikes, even misdemeanors, and you’re out in many states across the nation. Off to serve life in a minimum security facility were you are forced to work for the state. Often times with meager to no pay.
In the 1960’s, the counter-culture movements, and the civil liberties protests, forced many people of color who participated in protests, to have essentially no prospects for college, jobs, or housing. Many people of color were forced to live lives of mediocrity. Even after they had gained new rights and more legal equality, they still had criminal records from their time protesting. That meant they weren’t ever getting out of the lower classes in which they were born.
With this situation, it’s no wonder many neighborhoods that were once culturally flourishing, Harlem being one of the most notable, were eroded into smaller, ever tighter, hoods. Each with it’s own gang signs, gang colors, and an increase in violence and crime.
While Harlem was being slowly eroded by “tough on crime” policy, Silicon Valley was booming. The Late 70’s and early 80’s brought about the new, very expensive cellular phones; and with it, the laptop and pager. This was a new era in high-speed communications. People could manage large groups and easily gather information all with a phone call or a page. The shadow fell on this bold new world in the form of a new market for easily stolen and fenced, high-dollar, seemingly-legitimate products; ones that could be sold to everyone- not just party-goers and junkies.
Drug traffickers in Mexico, Ecuador, and Guatemala were quick to buy up and use new pagers and cellular devices to manage one of the largest South-Western drug trafficking decades in the United States history: the 1980’s. With a single phone call the largest drug dealers in South America could be tipped off, and divert millions of kilo’s of heroine, cocaine, and the new kid on the block: crack cocaine, into the US. Cocaine could be bought cheap and sold high. Everyone from celebrities to Junkies were jittering from the 80’s crack explosion.
And everyone knew about it, because of the now massive, omnipresent mass-media. Everything from Cable, to Satellite TV, and in the 90’s early internet, meant that people where now able to live 24/7 in an echo-chamber of self-assuring opinion. Fox News, MSNBC, CSPAN, MTV, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Discovery Channel, Nat Geo, Tech TV, G4, even the PlayBoy channel; TV was now almost entirely personalized for you. If you liked it, their was a TV station for it. You never had to listen to a dissenting opinion again.
The 1980’s was a huge decade economically, technologically, and criminally for the US; the 1990’s, however, was the decade when all those new technologies were finally being used by everyone from teenagers to law-enforcement and other government agencies to effectively know even the smallest events. However, with many states remaining tough on crime, and a general haze about how technology even worked, people who were were being slowly backed into tighter and tighter boxes.
Then Rodney King was brutally beaten on air for the nightly viewers of nightly news. The mid-to-late 20th century was an exhibition on new types of crime and punishment, but the LA Riot was the Grand Finale. One last massive boom, where the pent up aggression towards the man finally boiled into the streets. African Americans everywhere saw a black man getting beaten ruthlessly by police, over and over again, as 24 hour news railed on the police’s behavior; and yet, the police involved walked free. To many, it was the man reinforcing that he was the law, andthey were just second class citizens.
After the fires were put out and the insurance companies had settled with the last robbed Korean grocer, US policy makers had to take a good hard look at their tough on crime policies. Since then, almost every state has been relaxing their punishment standards, many outlawing the death penalty, and adding restrictions to their 3 strikes policies. A misdemeanor no longer ruins your life, at least, not always.
The decade ended with one of the nations great tragedies: Columbine. Bullied teenagers walked into a school, drew their weapons, and ended the lives of their classmates, and then themselves. In the wake of this tragedy, America saw a couple of kids who were bullied, and who wanted revenge. They lived their lives in an echo-chamber of self-righteous indignation, and solipsism. They killed others because they hated their classmates, and they killed themselves, because they knew there was no possible end where they weren’t dead. They were twisted people in a broken system.
The 90’s era crime wave was a conglomeration of many different forces; some trying to make the world better, others deliberately trying to profit of the heart-break, addiction, and sorrow of others. But without the 90’s crime wave, I don’t think America would be where it is today, with people being aware of flaws in the system, and many actively protesting injustice where it happens. Some may go too far, but if it weren’t for that one decade of shit-fan contact, we’d still be the America that thinks police can do no wrong, and that teenagers are just silly kids who needed to suck it up and “be adults” when they face serious psychological trauma in their schools.
Sorry, I had the strangest urge to right all that out…. Hope you enjoyed.