Us Crime And Legislation In The 1990s


Jenna Hammerslag

GOVT 6316: Case Study


In the country of your choice, pick any issue which got onto the government’s agenda (at national or sub-national level), identify the way in which the ‘problem’ was defined by public authorities, and explain why the problem was defined in this way.


      The United States urban crisis of the early nineties was a tumultuous time for policymakers. This period was defined by rising inequality, crime and social unrest across American cities. In response to public dissatisfaction over what was perceived as ineffective crime reduction policies, the Clinton Administration introduced comprehensive tough-on-crime legislation as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This became the largest crime control bill in U.S. history and allocated millions of dollars of federal funds to states to augment law enforcement measures, and to implement harsher sentencing designed to deter criminal offenders—most notably, truth-to-sentencing and three strikes laws (U.S. DOJ Fact Sheet, 1994). Although some funds were linked to crime prevention efforts, the bulk of federal aid was dedicated to measures that were seen as punitive rather than rehabilitative or preventative (U.S. DOJ, 1994).

This case study applies the theory of problem definition to understand how public authorities defined the problem of rising crime and its impact on designing policy solutions. According to Cairney (2012) and Kingdon (1984), problems receive attention based on how they are defined by policy participants, who engage in a process of issue framing, assigning causal responsibility, and political negotiation to choose one policy problem over another. This method is applied to determine the impact of prevailing ideologies on the media and public opinion, and the powerful effect it had on public authorities’ definition of and response to the issue.

First, it is important to comprehend the prevailing ideologies that impact the public’s perception, and subsequent framing of criminality. Simon’s (2007) research postulates that for the last 40 years, Americans have built a civil and political order around the problem of violent crime (p.3). Beginning in the 1970s, in response to public hysteria over soaring drug addiction and crime rates, Nixon ran a prolific ‘law and order’ campaign that initiated a war on drugs, setting the stage for zero tolerance policies and draconian penalties for drug possession. This war continued through the crack epidemic of the 1980s under Raegan, and was later inherited by H.W. Bush. 

Throughout this era, a tough-on-crime mentality emerged and the ideologies of deterrence, incapacitation, and punishment of criminals were instilled (Jenkins and Merlo, 2006, p. 202). Tonry (2013) notes, crime policy and drug policy became highly moralized, black and white, subjects of right and wrong; whilst sentencing laws and policies of increasing severity were adopted (p. 146-47). The focus of fighting crime translated as eliminating criminals via exclusionary, punitive, and harmful policies. Rehabilitation was deemphasized, and incarceration (i.e., warehousing) was promoted. A classical ideology of crime control underscored these developments (Jenkins and Merlo, 2006, p. 209). 

Second, the media’s role in defining the problem and reinforcing a public penchant for crime and punishment must be considered. Policy researchers widely acknowledge that mass media and popular ideas play an important role in agenda-setting, and that each time there is a surge of media interest in a given topic, we can expect some degree of policy action (Jones and Baumgartner, 2005, p. 269). Howlett, Ramesh and Perl (2009) emphasize, in particular, that those issues that can be translated into an interesting story, or which bear a narrative structure tend to be viewed by the public as more important (p.75). Lab (2004) elaborates, the media seems to favor those stories and events that “titillate” and grab the attention of the viewer, which inevitably leads to portrayals of murder, rape, robbery, and other heinous offenses (p. 685). This was the case in the media’s representation of crime in the early 1990s.

During this period, reports of civil unrest and violent crime dominated the news cycle, including a series of sensationalized murders that captured the attention of the American public (Simon, 2007). In 1992 the L.A. Riots spread scenes of civil unrest amidst the urban poor, punctuated by images of looting and violence; in 1993, the kidnapping and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klass in California blasted headlines; and in 1994, the rape and murder of nine-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey (Jenkins and Merlo, 2006). These, along with other infamous cases fueled the public’s perception that violent crime was increasing and drew media and political attention to how we deal with offenders (2006, p. 115). 

Important features of problem definition add dimension to the effect these stories have on the public’s understanding of the problem. Namely, Rochefort and Cobb (1994) discuss the impact of severity, that is how serious a problem and its consequences are taken to be (p.17); and crisis, those issues labeled severe where corrective action is long overdue and dire circumstances exist (p. 21). The inherent drama of the crime issue lends itself to severity, and means that, “a wide variety of incidents can serve as ‘triggering events’- or those occurrences that galvanize attention and provide instant material for those who would characterize a topical area as a crisis” (Sharpe, 1994, p. 104). 

We can also look at the author’s concept of proximity, or those issues that hit close to home, which may cause the public to become concerned, and thus compelled to express their concern politically (1994, p. 21). Fabelo (1996) describes this phenomenon in relation to the media’s portrayal of crime.  He finds that the “personalization and dramatization of crimes”—which is conveyed primarily by television—helps to create a “virtual reality” in which crime across the country is perceived as crime across the street (p. 477). Consequently, the public does not feel safe and is inclined to support and expect tougher responses to crime (Jenkins and Merlo, 2006, p. 116). In his assessment of public opinion on crime and punishment, Warr (1995) identified some prevailing trends that help explain the public’s anger and punitiveness. For example, in addition to the passionate and emotional responses generated by crime, he found a “relative constancy” in the public’s fear of crime over a twenty-year period from 1974-1994, and a parallel view that the courts are too lenient in dealing with criminals (p.297). 

Furthermore, the way a problem is defined must include an understanding of its origins, or causality (Rochefort and Cobb, 1994, p. 15). Current research underscores the impact of media on the public’s adoption of causal stances toward social problems (Iyengar, 1991). When television frames issues thematically, or in a way which depicts a trend, the public is more likely to hold politicians accountable for alleviating it. (1991, p. 2-3). Crime became a repeated, sensationalized theme that placed pressure on politicians to respond, in this instance, to what the public perceived as ineffective crime reduction policies (Aviram, 2015). 

Finally, with the problem neatly framed, and demonstrating a clear model of causation, public authorities were poised to act. Reducing crime was the issue of the moment; an imminent threat which required immediate punitive measures to correct. However, Cairney (2012) reminds us that it is important not to assume that public opinion is readily tied to policy outcomes. Thus, we must examine the role politics played in defining a solution aimed at reducing crime.

Policy practitioners would agree that political decisions are always focused on the “issue of the moment,” and every new administration needs to look good or active by enacting change (Lab, 2004, p. 686). In Lab’s analysis of criminal justice policy, he finds that defining the prevention of crime along the lines of arrest, prosecution, and punishment are not only familiar to the general public, but they represent the appearance of doing something about crime (p. 684). These definitions then become deeply intertwined with political objectives.

Clinton’s crime control legislation came just two and a half years into his first term as president, on the heels of a reelection campaign. With the problem of crime squarely on the public’s agenda, Aviram (2015) notes the impact political rhetoric surrounding the issue has had. He claims at both the federal and state levels,” the new post Nixonian playing field required actors to tout their toughness on crime. Being regarded as “soft on crime” became a political impossibility that transcended party” (p. 33). Jenkins and Merlo (2006) affirm these claims: the public fears crime and any politician who can convince the public that he or she is tough on crime has an effective election strategy (p. 116). As a result of this politicization, candidates have become effective in manipulating the public’s fear of victimization and in justifying an expansion of incarceration policies (Fabelo, 1996).

Lastly, defining action along punitive lines generates results. Arrests and convictions are quantifiable, while long-term prevention campaigns are not. And as Lab (2004) stresses, politicians look for immediate results that will help them to be reelected. Unfortunately, crime prevention programs, particularly those that require major changes at the community and societal levels, often require a much longer time period to have an impact than that provided by the election cycle (p. 685).

Criminal justice policy researchers during this period agree that the Clinton Administration and the policy subsystems involved in shaping the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, leveraged this moment to look good, create the appearance of action, and subsequently fulfill political objectives surrounding reelection (Fabelo, 1996; Lab, 2004; Simon, 2007; Tonry, 2003). Harsher sentencing policies are therefore due to both the public’s desire to get tough on crime and the legislative response to that demand (Jenkins and Merlo, 2006, p. 113).

This analysis reflects the pervasive influence that existing ideologies, the media, and the political milieu had in shaping public authorities’ definition of and response to crime in the early 1990s. To conclude, tough-on-crime rationality was a result of: the dominance and continued popularity of an ideology that is punitive and harsh towards offenders, the media’s sensationalized portrayal of crime and criminals and the perceived public demand for tougher sanctions, and elected officials eagerness to maintain their stance on crime control and how best to address it

Word Count:1,639 [139 words over! That’s less than 10%]



  • Aviram, H. (2015). Cheap on Crime: Recession-era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment. Retrieved from  
  • Jones, B., & Baumgartner, F. (2005). The Politics of Attention: How Government Prioritizes Problems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Cairney, P. (2012). Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sharpe, E. (2019). Paradoxes of Antidrug Policymaking. In Rochefort, D., & Cobb, R. The Politics of Problem Definition: Shaping the Policy Agenda. (p. 100-106). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  • Fabelo, Tony (1996). Whatever Is Next After the Prison-Building Boom Will Be Next in Texas. The Prison Journal, 76 (4), 475-483.
  • Howlett, M., Ramesh, M., & Perl, A. (2009). Studying Public Policy: Policy Cycles and Subsystems (3rd ed.). Ontario: Don Mills. 
  • Iyenagar, S. 1991. Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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  • Kingdon, J. (1984). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  • Lab, S.P. (2004). Crime Prevention, Politics, and the Art of Going Nowhere Fast. Justice Quarterly, 21(4),681-692.
  • Rochefort, D., & Cobb, R. (1994). The Politics of Problem Definition: Shaping the Policy Agenda. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  • Simon, J. (2007). Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tonry, M. (2003) Sentencing in America, 1975–2025. Crime and Justice in America, 42(1), 141-198.
  • U.S. Department of Justice Fact Sheet. (1994). Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act  of 1994. Retrieved from
  • Warr, Mark. (1995). The Polls-Poll Trends: Public Opinion on Crime and Punishment. Public Opinion Quarterly, 56(2), 296-310. 



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