The phrase "tough on crime" isn't what it used to be, assuming you can even pin down what it meant in the first place.

Decades of tightening laws and stiffening penalties have resulted in overcrowded prisons -- which many people now say we can't afford -- and a high recidivism rate. People sometimes complain when a mayor isn't visible at the scene after a heinous crime happens, but while that might comfort a mournful community, it's hardly a worry for criminals or salve for victims.

In 2010, crime was down in Oakland in most categories -- such as homicide -- while up in others, including residential burglaries. Although some of the reductions can be attributed to specific suppression efforts used by police and programs created by community organizations, there isn't any one effort or individual that can be credited with the decrease, or blamed for the increase.

Many sociologists and criminologists believe crime rates have more to do with the economy, social conditions, policing methods and community attitudes than with what elected officials say and do. Still, many politicians are quick to make promises when things look bad and take credit when things go well. "Tough on crime" has become a cliche.

"It's an emotional appeal, obviously," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "It's emotion, a feeling that criminals should be locked up for a long term, certainly a fear."

Financial reasons can also lead to such rhetoric, as police and prison guards' unions and lobbies wield political clout through big campaign coffers, he said.


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But professor Raphael Sonenshein, who heads Cal State Fullerton's Politics, Administration and Justice Division, said he sees "shifting sands" on the political efficacy of being "tough on crime."

"I actually think it's changing. There are conservatives now "... talking about getting people out of the prisons as a budget issue," he said. "I'm not hearing as much that law and order is as big as it was for a while. The economy is a bigger issue, the budget is a bigger issue.

"If you're running for office, you'd certainly not want to run a lock-'em-up campaign right now. The first thing your opponent would say is, 'Where's the money for that?' "

In fact, former California Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan co-authored a recent Washington Post op-ed piece with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich citing the nation's skyrocketing prison population and spending, as well as the system's high recidivism rate.

"Some people attribute the nation's recent drop in crime to more people being locked up. But the facts show otherwise," they wrote. "While crime fell in nearly every state over the past seven years, some of those with the largest reductions in crime have also lowered their prison population."

Among other things, they called for smarter spending on probation systems and drug courts -- approaches not unlike those touted last year by Democrat Kamala Harris, then San Francisco's district attorney, in her "smart on crime" campaign for California attorney general. Harris beat Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a more traditional "tough on crime" Republican endorsed by much of the law-enforcement lobby.

"Kamala Harris did not win her attorney general's race by being 'tough on crime,' " Stern said. "That was a real upset, I thought."

The reality is that crime rates have fallen in many places, "and reality does sometime play a role in politics," Sonenshein added. Despite public concern stoked by what he described as the mainstream media's longtime, overly negative focus on crime, "we have had smarter policing, we've had time to see that that works, and I think it's started to make an impression."

He said one turning point was the creation in 1994 -- under a bill authored by then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and signed by President Bill Clinton -- of the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services program, which paid for hiring and retaining tens of thousands of local officers and improved law enforcement techniques. Using computers to log intelligence data and track crimes, as William Bratton did while running the police departments in New York City and Los Angeles, also helped, Sonenshein said.

Still, what "tough on crime" means often depends on where you stand.

Rashidah Grinage, executive director of People United for a Better Life in Oakland, said community policing is supposed to mean police connecting neighborhoods with resources they can use to solve problems, but in reality it often means "a kind of organized snitching" in which police only want tips on when and where to watch. "It's exacerbating the 'us versus them' mentality, which I think is counter to the original concept of community policing -- to bring people together."

Dom Arotzarena, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said it's about putting officers on the street in the right places and at the right times.

"All these people want to say, because it sounds good, that community policing is the way to go," he said. "But we lost some of the biggest, most important units around with the drug units and (Crime Reduction Teams)."

These specialized units, eliminated by budget cuts, were tasked with policing more proactively than regular patrols, developing community contacts and learning more about gang and drug activity, Arotzarena said. A truly "tough on crime" attitude matters mostly where politicians control police funding and policy, but that's a double-edged sword, he said: "A lot of politicians get involved when they shouldn't, because they don't know what's going on.

"They say we need more community officers, but the guy in the Oakland hills going around towing cars isn't going to take a chunk out of the homicide problem," he said. "He's going to help local businesses, which they truly deserve, but it's not a big impact on homicides."

Yet Grinage asks, "If being tough means being punitive, the question is, where is the benefit to anyone in that system? Where is the benefit to the community, where is the benefit to that individual?"

The website of Grinage's group says it "works to challenge the racism inherent in the city of Oakland's policing practices and fights to hold officers accountable to the community they serve." When Grinage hears a politician say "tough on crime," she envisions something "akin to the Three Strikes idea and also most of the police shows on television -- that you apprehend and prosecute by any means necessary," she said.

"Where there is doubt, you err on the side of assuming guilt rather than assuming innocence."

But simply locking offenders up means they "usually come out worse than they went in," she said, so "tough on crime" should mean making the community whole again through restorative justice such as restitution and community service.

Oakland City Councilmember Nancy Nadel and Alameda County Superior Court Judge Gail Bereola are among the public officials who "have given quite a bit of study and reflection to this and have come away with a conviction "... that it's a far more rational, cost-effective and efficient way to rehabilitate folks and essentially bring healing to the community," she said.

Contact Josh Richman at jrichman@bayareanewsgroup.com and Sean Maher at smaher@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Follow them at Twitter.com/Josh_Richman and Twitter.com/OneSeanMaher.