Former President Ronald Reagan is most well known for ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union. One of his lesser-known achievements has had an even greater impact on our lives: his defeat of the inexorable crime wave that seemed like a permanent fixture in American society. He didn’t get everything he wanted on crime legislation, but he set in motion a Republican Party that battered Democrats into submission across almost every state on the issue of crime, leading to the miraculous two decades of declining crime. Now, that is all being undone.
Reagan’s prescient warning
In a 1981 speech, Reagan decried liberal pro-criminal policies as rooted in "utopian presumptions about human nature." "For all our science and sophistication, for all our justified pride in intellectual accomplishment, we should never forget: the jungle is always there, waiting to take us over," said the 40th president in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in September 1981. He presciently observed that the liberal belief that criminal justice is solely for rehabilitation instead of for incapacitation and deterrent is rooted in “a belief that there was nothing permanent or absolute about man's nature" and that by changing his environment "we could permanently change man and usher in a great new age."
Look at repeat violent offenders. Reagan understood that if you take those guys off the streets, you will prevent most crime. Thus, while most crimes are state crimes, by successfully pushing for the federal mandatories on drug and gun violations, he took the robbers and murderers off the streets. But through the courts and some revisions of the laws, coupled with new liberal criminal justice policies in practically all 50 states, both parties have undone his work.
Baltimore residents marked the turn of the new year with a grim milestone: the record for the most murders per capita in city history. Yet just eight years ago, Baltimore set a three-decade low in homicides, registering just 197 in 2011, compared with 348 in 2019. How has the murder rate climbed this high in less than a decade?
Well, as Reagan warned, “Study after study shows that most serious crimes are the work of a relatively small group of hardened criminals. … It's time to get these hardened criminals off the street and into jail.” This is what the federal government was doing with programs like “Project Exile” thanks to Reagan’s vision – working with local law enforcement to target the worst violent offenders and lock them up on firearms charges.
Many advocates of the First Step Act, even Republicans, misleadingly decried “low-level” offenders being locked up in federal prison for too long, but the reality is that those targeted by the feds for drugs and firearms are usually those responsible for many of the murders in cities like Baltimore and Chicago. Thankfully, conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton were successful in removing from the bill reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for gun felons, but the bill still contained many other loopholes for early release of some of these violent criminals, including gun felons.