For several decades there was a strong and vibrant civil rights movement in the United States. On many fronts this political and social movement was extremely successful. In the 1940s and 50s the Supreme Court reversed decades-old precedents upholding racial segregation. In the 1960s Congress passed powerful civil rights legislation. From the 1940s through the 1960s various Presidents moved decisively in support of equality. Truman desegregated the armed forces, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, and LBJ pushed civil rights and voting rights legislation through Congress, to name but a few examples. But by the end of the 1970s the civil rights agenda had largely run its course in national politics. What happened to this political movement and why are its concerns largely absent in national politics today? Evidence of racial inequality is ubiquitous, especially with regard to crime and punishment, so why is there a lack of national political movement on these issues today? These questions provided the impetus for Professor Lisa L. Miller’s recent research regarding congressional attention to crime, justice, and inequality. Professor Miller argues that the decision to adopt a federalist system (a centralized national government with limited but preemptive powers combined with state governments possessing general legislative power) has stymied progress on issues of social justice and inequality. Specifically, Professor Miller argues that the existence of multiple legislative venues Balkanizes groups that would be allies on a national stage.
Professor Miller examined congressional hearings on crime between 1971 and 2000 in order to determine what crime-related topics lawmakers were addressing and what kinds of witnesses they were hearing from. Hearings were divided into the following categories: police/guns/prisons, drugs, juveniles, riots, white collar, and crimes against women and children. Unsurprisingly, Congress spent a great deal of attention focusing on police and prisons during the tumultuous 1970s, and in the 1980s congressional attention switched to drugs. In this regard, Congressional attention to criminal issues roughly tracked the news cycle. In the 1970s civil protests and prison riots drew widespread attention and in the 1980s the threat posed by illegal drugs came to the fore. Professor Miller argues that Congress’s relatively short attention span on these issues prevents meaningful action to address inequality and inequities relating to crime and punishment in the United States. These inequalities aren’t hard to miss—at every point in the criminal justice system Blacks and Latinos are substantially over-represented relative to their proportion of the population.
Turning to the question of who lawmakers are hearing from, Professor Miller divided witnesses at congressional hearings into the following categories: government representatives, professional groups, citizen groups, and other/unknown groups. The vast majority of witnesses at congressional hearings are representatives from criminal justice agencies and other government witnesses. Notably absent are those who have experienced drug crime or drug addiction first hand. By comparison, Professor Miller looked at city council meetings in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from 1997 to 2006. Citizen groups representing broad concerns, virtually absent in congressional hearings, appeared frequently at the local level. These citizen groups were able to connect crime and punishment to the challenge of improving neighborhood conditions and quality of life.
What are we to make of this contrast between local and national politics on criminal justice issues? In rough terms, the police show up in Congress and community groups show up at city hall. This would be fine except for the fact that local governments are basically powerless to fix the problems Professor Miller highlights. In other words, Congress has the money and clout needed to address systemic inequality but city governments do not. Professor Miller says that groups across the country that would be natural allies for a fight in Congress instead are spending their energy in local government, when really Congress is the political body that can best address the systemic problems about which they are concerned.
Professor Abebe pointed to an interesting and unaddressed question by asking how we should measure improvement on the issues that Professor Miller is raising. Professor Miller is concerned about inequality—the unequal distribution of money, punishment, education, opportunity, and most importantly political representation. The distribution of many of these things is certainly lopsided. But we need to know what “equality” is before we can determine the significance of the lack of community groups in congressional hearings. Miller thinks there should be more input from citizen groups who can connect criminal policy to broader social concerns, but how much more is not clear. Professor Miller’s starting point is noting how the criminal justice system is hugely unequal in terms of outcomes. But simply noting this inequality doesn’t tell us how often Congress should be hearing from citizen groups who can describe first hand the impact of federal criminal policy. And, perhaps more significantly, without a definition of equality we can’t tell when Congress is making progress towards addressing the unequal distribution of criminal punishment.
By comparing the political process at various levels of government on one issue, criminal justice, Professor Miller’s paper is the start of an interesting conversation regarding how various political institutions can amplify certain voices while muting others. It seems at first blush that institutional arrangements are only one part of the story. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s American government functioned in roughly the same way that it functions today. Yet groups advocating for civil rights, social justice, and related issues were successful in pushing their agenda at the national level during those decades. Turning back to the question that motivated Professor Miller’s research, it seems to me that American federalism by itself can’t by itself have caused the decline of the civil rights agenda on the national political stage. Political institutions shape policy outcomes, but the civil rights movement happened in a federalist system.
Despite the surface appeal of this narrative, Professor Miller argues that national majorities can only overcome the limitations of federalism only when there are massive social upheavals (Vietnam, civil disobedience, etc) to sustain social movements advocating in favor of change. In other words, Professor Miller argues that the civil rights movement was successful in spite of the limitations of American federalism. This of course begs a more challenging and troubling question: why stark inequalities in the distribution of crime and punishment along racial lines fail to attract the kind of attention that has motivated Congress to act in the past.