“Superpredators” and “Animals”: Images and California’s “Get Tough on Crime” Initiatives

By Beth Caldwell and Ellen C. Caldwell

Images in the media shape popular culture and permeate the collective conscious such that political opinions and decisions are silently yet profoundly impacted by these images. Criminal justice policy in California, which leads the nation in incarceration trends (Abramsky, 2002; Christie, 2001; Gilmore, 2007), has been heavily influenced by popularized misconceptions which are widely believed despite contradictory, objective evidence. Representations of juvenile offenders and “criminals” as “superpredators” and “animals” have created a political climate in which the public almost blindly supports any “get tough on crime” legislation (Mauer, 1999). In the words of journalist Sasha Abramsky (2002), “[m]ass incarceration was born out of the popular will and has continued through popular demand” (p. xiv).

The influence of popular culture on politics is particularly apparent in California’s initiative process, which allows people to vote directly on proposed changes to state law. Originally championed by progressives as a mechanism for putting more power in the hands of voters, the initiative process has been criticized for its susceptibility to manipulation by campaigns that pour resources into advertising in order to pass laws that reflect the narrow interests of particular pressure groups. The initiative process has resulted in dramatic changes to California law that have fueled mass incarceration in the state.

Read more here at the Journal of the Institute of Justice & International Studies.

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