(Article from the Economist, June 8, 1996)

  1. Recent falls in America's crime rate have led policy-makers round the world to look admiringly at the country's get-tough policies. They should not. American criminal justice policy is misconceived and dangerous.

  2. REMEMBER serial killers? A few years ago, these twisted creatures haunted not just the American imigination but, it seemed, America's real streets and parks: an official of the Justice Department was widely reported as saying that 4,000 of America's annual 24,000 or so murders were attributable to serial killers.

  3. America loves its myths--and that was pretty much what the "wave of serial killings" turned out to be: 4,000 people are not victims of serial murders: 4,000 murders remain unsolved each year. According to cool-headed academic research, maybe 50 people a year are victims of serial murders: the figure has been stable for 20 years.

  4. Serial murders obviously form a bizarre and special category of criminal. People might well believe extraordinary things about them. But about crime in general, surely ordinary folk have a better understanding--don't they? Well, consider the two widely-held beliefs:

  5. "America has experienced a crime wave in the past 20 years." No. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime fell in the first half of the 1980s, rose in the second half, and has been falling in the 1990s. Over the past two decades, it has fallen slightly. Non-violent property crimes (theft, larceny and burglery) have followed similar paterns. So has murder: its peak was in 1980.

  6. "America is more criminal than other countries." Again, no. According to an International Crime Survey, carried out by the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands in 1992, America is not obviously more criminal than anywhere else. You are more likely to burgled in Australia or New Zealand. You are more likely to be robbed with violence in Spain: you are more likely to be robbed without violence in Spain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. You are more likely to be raped or indecently assaulted in Canada, Australia or West Germany. And so on.

  7. American misconceptions raise two questions. First, why are Americans so afraid of crime? (As according to Gallup polls, they are: in recent years Americans have put crime either first or second in their list of problems facing the country; in Britain, crime limps along between second and sixth in people's priorities.) Second, why should Americans be so punitive in their attitude to criminals? (As they also seem to be: when asked by the International Crime Survey what should happen to a young burgler who has committed more than one offence, 53 percent of Americans reckoned he should go to prison, compared with 37 percent of English and Welsh, 22 percent of Italians and 13 percent of Germans and French.)

  8. One possible explanation is that Americans are irrational in their attitudes to crime. But that cannot be right: crime imposes huge costs on the country and has helped turn parts of American inner cities into nightmares of violence. Given that, it is hardly surprising that Americans should fear the spread of crime. But it remains surprising that American public attitudes should be so different from those in other countries which also have dangerous inner cities. No, there seems to be something else feeding American's fear and loathing of criminals. More probably, two things: the violence of American crime, and its irrationality. And it is with these that America's real crime-policy problems begin.


  9. America tops the developed-country crime league only in one category: murder. While you are more likely to be burgled in Sydney than in Los Angeles, you are 20 times more likely to be murdered in Los Angeles than you are in Sydney.

  10. American crime in not only more more violent; it is also irrational in its violence. Think about a person held up at gunpoint who fails to cooperate with a robber. "Since both the risk of apprehension and the potential punishment escalate when the victim is killed," says Frank Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, "the rational robber would be well advised to meet flight or refusal by avoiding conflict and seeking another victim." Yet Americans commonly get killed in these circumstances, and it is the irrationality of such violence that terrifies.

  11. There is nothing odd of surprising in the observation that America is more violent than other countries, that Americans are more afraid of crime, and they are therefore more punitive. But the problem with America's criminal justice policy lies in that sequence of thought. By eluding violence and crime, Americans fail to identify the problem that sets them apart from the rest of the rich world, which is violence, rather than crime generally. Americans are right to think they have a special problem with violence. They are wrong to think their country is being overwhelmed by crime of every sort. Yet because many people do think that, they are throwing their weight behind indiscriminate policies which, at huge cost, bludgeon crime as a whole but fail to tackle the problem of violence.

  12. America now imprisons seven times as many people (proportionately) as does the average European country, largely as a result of get-tough-on crime laws. These are the laws other countries are now studying with admiration.

  13. First came mandatory sentencing laws, requiring courts to impose minimum sentences on offenders for particular crimes. Michigan, for instance, has a mandatory life sentence for an offender caught with 650 grams of cocaine. A federal law condemns anybody convicted of possession of more than five grams of crack to a minimum of five years in prison.

  14. Then came "three strikes and you're out", supported by Bill Clinton and adopted by 20-odd states and the federal government. These impose a mandatory life sentence on anybody convicted of a third felony. The seriousness of the felony, and therefore the impact of the law, varies from state to state. In california, in the most celebrated case, a man who stole a pizza as his third felony got life. His case was extreme, but not unique: another man got life after stealing three steaks.


  15. Now the fashion is for "truth-in-sentencing". Such laws require the criminal to spend most of his sentence (usually 85%) in prison, rather than making him elligible for parole after, say, four to six years of a ten year sentence. There is much to be said for a system that does not leave the public feeling cheated about what sentences actually ammount to. But by imposing the 85% average on all offenders, "truth-in-sentencing makes it impossible to discriminate between people who seem genually remorseful and might be let out early and the more dangerous types who should serve the whole of their sentence.

  16. Since the early 1970s, when the first tough-sentencing laws were introduced, the prison population has risen from 200,000 to 1,100,000. If that increase were made up mostly of the violent people that have engendered America's crime panic, that could be counted as a blow against violent crime. But it is not: the biggest increase is in non-violent drug offenders.

  17. Between 1980 and now, the proportion of those sentenced to prison for non-violent property crimes has remained about the same (two fifths). The number of those sentenced for drugs has soared (from one-tenth to over one-third.)

  18. And so what, you might ask? Non-violent crime still matters. Even if America's crime panic is related to violence, it is right and proper that the system should be seeking to minimise all crime. The prison population is going up. The crime figures are going down. let em rot. As the right says: "prison works."

  19. Or does it? That depends on what you mean by "works". To many people, prison can strongly influence the trend in the crime rate; putting a lot of people in prison, they believe, can achieve a long-term reversal of rising crime. This must be doubtful. Yes crime is falling now. But it also fell in the early 1980s and fell again in the early 1990s. The prison population rose through the whole period.

  20. If there is any single explanation for these changes, it would seem to lie in demographics. Young men commit by far and away the largest number of crimes, so when there are more of them around, proportionately, the crime rate goes up. That was what happened in the 1960s, the period of the big, sustained post-war rise in the crime rate. Demography also tells you that there will be more young men around in ten years time to commit more crimes.

  21. But demographics cannot be the only explanation. If it were, crime would have fallen in the second half of the 1980s, when there were fewer teenagers. In fact, it rose.

  22. Why? The answer is probably drugs. What seems to have happened is that the appearnace of crack in late 1985 shook up the drugs-distribution business. The number of dealers increased, kids with no capital got into the business and gangs competed murderously for market share.

  23. This theory would account for the decline in homicides in the 1990s. Crack consumption seems to be fallng--possibly just because drugs go in and out of fashion, possibly because teenagers have seen how bad the stuff is. And the market has matured as well as declined. Policemen and researchers say territories have been carved out, boundaries set. With competition less rife, murders have declined.

  24. The significance of all this is that it loosens the connection between the rise in the prison population and the fall in the crime rate. Crime might have fallen anyway. A combination of demographic and social explanations, rather than changes in the prison population, seems to account for much of the changing pattern of crime.


  25. That said, there might still be a justification for putting more people in prison: if by doing so you lowered the overall level of crime by taking criminals out of circulation. Indeed, if a small number of young men commit a disproportionately large number of crimes, then locking up this particular group might depress crime a lot.

  26. Liberal criminologists sometimes appear to doubt this. "It seems," says John Dilulio, the right-wing's favorite thinker on crime, "that you need a PHD in criminology to doubt the proposition that putting criminals in prison will keep down crime." Of course, the proposition is self-evidently true. If you banged up for life anyone who had ever committed a crime, however trivial, crime would plummet. But the question is: is this sensible, even if it does work?

  27. To many ordinary Americans, it is and politicians are happy to oblige the voters by promising to get ever tougher on crime. But what is the evidence about whether prison is an effective way of reducing crime?

  28. Looking across the state's different crime rates and imprisonment rates, there is no correlation between the two. True, you would not necessarily expect one: states are different and tough sentencing laws might be a reaction to a high crime rate as much as a way of bringing it down. But more sophisticated analysis confirm there is no link. Mr. Zimring took the adult and juvenile crime rates in California and studied what happened over the period when tough laws were being introduced for adults, but not for juveniles. No relationship is detectible: for most crimes, offenses committed by juveniles either fell or rose significantly less than those committed by adults.

  29. And, just as there is no convincing argument that prison effectively reduces the level of crime, nor does there seem to be a convincing cost benefit argument in favor of prison. The problem lies in costing crime. The often used estimate, which monetises intangibles like pain and suffering, calculates the annual costs of crime at $450 billion. This makes prison look a bargain: its annual bill is $35 billion, while the criminal-justice system, including police and courts, costs $100 billion. But if you calculate the costs of crime on the basis of physical damage--hospital bills or the cost of replacing stolen goods--the figure comes out to a mere $18 billion a year. The moral is that, while the cost of crime must be high, no one has any real idea what it is.

  30. What you can say is that, out of the range of options for dealing with criminals, prison is among the most expensive. One currently popular alternative is the "drugs court". Under this system, people charged with possession or small dealing may opt to go through a drugs-treatment programme rather than stand trial. Treatment costs $3,500 to $15,000 a year, depending on whether it is residential or not; prison costs $22,000. There is also some evidence that these courts are better than prisons at discouraging reoffending, though, since they are relatively new, the evidence is not conclusive.

  31. Of course, get-tough policies raise questions other than that of efficacy. One is moral. Is it right to lock somebody up for life for stealing a pizza? Another is racial (see box). These concerns have not, it seems, made much of an impact on public opinion. According to Mr. Dilulio, "Americans have lost interest in the Anglo Saxon, innocent until proven guilty model of justice. They want to get the bad guys."

  32. Yet even by this measure, the get-tough policies are misfiring. Around 100,000 people go to prison for the six million odd violent crimes committed a year. The system is not getting the bad guys. What it is getting is a great many drug taking, drug dealing, small time thieves. Conservatives argue that most people in prison are either violent or repeat offenders. True, but many of the repeat offenders are addicts financing their habit through drug dealing or burglary. Nobody suggests that they are unfortunates for whom one should merely be sorry; but it is not clear that sending a crack user to prison for five years is a rational solution to America's violent-crime problem.

  33. America is awash with academics, judges, commissioners and policemen who know and study crime. The Justice Department's research arm, the National Institute of Justice, spent $53 million last year on research of a higher standard, and in a larger quantity, than goes on anywhere else in the world.

  34. Almost all of this stuff doubts the efficacy of what is going on in criminal justice, and fears for the consequences. Almost all the professionals agree that America's problem is violence, and that the way to reduce violence is to restrict access to guns. And on this--although the point is rarely noticed--the public agrees: 62%, according to a recent Gallup poll, favour stricter gun control.

  35. Yet none of it makes much difference to public policy. The administration promotes a three-strike policy even though it knows that the main effect of three-strike laws is to bung up the prison system with people long past crime committing age.

  36. American crime policy seems to have become an area where the arguments--admittedly often complex and finely balenced--take second place to the lobbying power of special interest groups. The effectiveness of the National Rifle Association, has been well documented. A less familiar one is the prison-building lobby.

  37. Prisons have been likened to the defence industry as a government subsidy to the white working class. For areas hit by the end of the cold war, and by the ups and downs of agriculture, prisons provide attractively recession proof employment. As the flier for the American Jail Association last year said, "Jails are BIG BUSINESS." Towns compete to get them.

  38. The prison guard's union has also become a powerful voice. According to a study of campaign contributions in California in 1991-92, the local version, the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, was the second largest doner in the state. It spends around $1,000,000 on political contributions for the governorship and the legislature in each electoral cycle.

  39. But more important than the lobbying, and more worrying, is the failure of public debate on prison, its costs, and the alternatives. According to Bobby Scott, a democratic congressman opposed to tough sentencing laws, "When you call for more incarcaration, you do not have to explain yourself; when you argue for effective alternatives, you do. And in politics, when you start explaining, you've lost." If that is true--and it sounds painfully accurate--something has gone badly wrong not just with American crime policy, but with America's capacity for reasoned public debate.


  40. Blacks are more likely to commit crimes than are whites. Around 45% of those arrested for serious crimes are black. But they are also more harshely treated. Numberless studies have shown that the criminal-justice system is not colour blind. there are more unfounded arrests of blacks. Blacks pay on average twice as much bail as whites. They are more likely to be jailed before trial and get heavier sentences for the same crime.

  41. Since the "war on drugs", the bias seems to have got worse. Blacks make up 12% of the American population, and according to government surveys, 13% of those who say they have used drugs in the past month. But they account for 35% of arrests for drug possession, 55% of convictions and 74% of prison sentences.

  42. Partly, that is because drug laws implicitly target blacks. Crack is a drug favoured by blacks. The mandatory federal penalty for possessing five grams of crack (a couple of days supply for an addict) is five years in jail. Cocaine is principally a white person's drug. To get the same sentence a cocaine user has to have half a kilo in his possession.

  43. The implementation of anti-drug laws also affects blacks disproportionately. Partly that is because the police raid black areas, not nice white suburbs, but that is not the full explanation. A study of sentencing in the 1980s, which devided blacks between "underclass" and "non-underclass", concluded that the biggst increase in the prison population was among "non-underclass" blacks convicted for drug offences.

  44. The figures on blacks in the criminal justice system are shocking. According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington based penal-reform group, one third of 20-29-year-old black men are on probation, on parole or in prison. As the prison population rises, that share will increase yet further. Think about that.

  45. People who have been in prison have a slim chance of regular employment on release. Their families are therefore poorer than others. Their children are fatherless while they are inside. Prison becomes the norm; "normal" life abnormal. America is on a dangerous course.

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