Crime rates have been falling since the early 1990s. Penal systems are a burden that states say they can’t afford. There is national rising sentiment that it’s time to end the era of drug prohibition along with the international, national, and local enforcement apparatus driven by federal funding.
Four decades ago the federal government committed the nation to two new wars – crime and drugs – but it has never since evaluated strategy or progress of these seemingly unending wars. Although the Obama administration represents a new era in U.S. politics and its top officials are a different breed from the hardliners of the Nixon administration that launched the crime and drug wars, there are few signs that the new administration is willing to examine let alone overall U.S. crime and drug policy.
With respect to the border and immigration, the proposed 2010 budget underscores the federal government’s continuing commitment to the “get tough” approach that over the past four decades has put crime and drug prosecution into the center of governance in the United States. Criminal scholar Jonathan Simon calls this social and political phenomenon “governing through crime.”
Rather than change, the administration's new border security initiatives represent continuity. It continues the failed formulas of the crime and drug wars -- more police, more interdiction, more prosecutions, and more federal involvement in law enforcement -- rather than addresssing the fatal flaw in U.S. drug policy, namely its focus on prohibition. And Obama's commitment to border security represents continuity with the Bush administration's "enforcement first" and border security first practices.
The Obama administration is proposing $27 billion for border and transportation security programs at the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department – a largely “get tough” approach to new concerns about how drug-related violence in Mexico will spill over the border. The administration has also noted that the new focus on border security is aimed to increase its credibility when the time comes to sell immigration reform.
While linking part of the new border security thrust to the drug violence in Mexico, the administration has not showed any indication that it is willing to consider drug policy reform as part of the solution – both for Mexico’s problems as a drug exporter and for this country’s own consumption and criminal justice problems.
The increased funding for efforts to block southbound flows of weapons to Mexico does demonstrate new government sensibility to the U.S. role as supplier of the instruments of drug violence. Over the past month, the Border Patrol is doubling up with CBP agents to monitor southbound traffic at ports of entry.
But this new presence, rather than demonstrating a real U.S. commitment to halt arms flows, highlights instead the weak-kneed response of the Obama administration. Unwilling to take on the powerful gun lobby, the Obama administration seems content to allow the weapons industry to thrive while consigning the Border Patrol to yet another unfocused mission.
The administration, however, has taken one swipe at the “war on crime” with its controversial decision not to fund the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP). The program emerged in 1994 as part of the largest crime bill in history – the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The act included a package of anti-immigrant measures that drew local law enforcement into immigration enforcement and set off a series of laws and regulations aimed at “criminal aliens.”