6,865,000 pageviews

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The "Lock-'em-Up" Era

     "Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people." James Q. Wilson's blunt declaration in 1975 captured perfectly the hard-line anticrime mood that was to dominate the country for the next twenty years. Persistent high rates of violent crime, public hysteria over drugs, and worsening race relations fostered a "lock-'em-up" attitude toward criminals. The result was a spectacular increase in the number of prisoners, from 240,593 in 1975 to 1 million by January 1996. The incarceration rate of 330 per 100,000 population was eight times higher than that of many western European countries and was rivaled only by the rates in South Africa and the former Soviet Union.

     Nothing better illustrated the "lock-'em-up" attitude than the fate of Gary Fannon, sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole at age 18 for possessing 650 grams of cocaine. The draconic Michigan drug law under which he was sentenced was typical of those in many states. There was also the case of Jerry Williams the so-called "pizza thief." One of the first persons convicted under a 1994 California "three strikes and you're out" law, he was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for stealing three slices of pizza. [We are now living in the "let-'m out" era.]

Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, Second Edition, 1998


  1. When California passed the three strikes rule, because I was relatively (for lack of a better phrase) "soft on crime", I remember being appalled upon hearing that people who already had one or two felony convictions did not get to start over.

    Now I am more mature and realize that I wouldn't have wanted someone to accumulate four or more felonies before getting the life sentence. True, that pizza theft conviction was not for a crime as major as those anticipated. This is why, although I'm not as "soft on crime" as I used to be, I oppose draconian sentencing requirements.

  2. Let's see, do I want a criminal convicted of minor crimes locked up longer than he should be OR do I want a criminal convicted of major crimes out on the street sooner than he should be? I'll pick the last option.

  3. I guess that works well for the criminal class. For the rest of us, not so good.