Welfare and Race

by Henry on August 8, 2007

From Glenn Loury’s excellent article in the new Boston Review on why there are so many people in US prisons, and why so many of these people are black.

… something interesting seems to have been going on in the late 1960s regarding the relationship between attitudes on race and social policy. Before 1965, public attitudes on the welfare state and on race, as measured by the annually administered General Social Survey, varied year to year independently of one another: you could not predict much about a person’s attitudes on welfare politics by knowing their attitudes about race. After 1965, the attitudes moved in tandem, as welfare came to be seen as a race issue. Indeed, the year-to-year correlation between an index measuring liberalism of racial attitudes and attitudes toward the welfare state over the interval 1950–1965 was .03. These same two series had a correlation of .68 over the period 1966–1996.



Joel Turnipseed 08.08.07 at 7:34 pm

Yeah, the U.S. system of criminal justice is truly the most fucked up thing about this country–seconded only by our health care system (and in a not-too-distant third: Iraq). Compared to almost all other problems (rising inequality, education system, etcetera), these three are just unbelievably broken.

The question is: who’s putting forth stump speeches and policy proposals on reforming the criminal justice/prison system?

Just to start things kicking here, a few thoughts:

1) Would a Constitutional Amendment ending felony disenfranchisement ever pass? Is it necessary?

2) Would a blanket amnesty and release, with some form of educational aid and welfare guarantee, for drug and three-strikes-and-you’re-out felons with no other history of violent crimes be a non-starter? Enough?

3) Those two come off the top of my head among remedies to some of the structural racism in our criminal justice/prison system: but what else can we do?


stuart 08.08.07 at 7:58 pm

I imagine that the first part of it really would be changing a significant part of the publics perception – it is very common to come across americans who roundly deny there is any racism in the criminal justice system (there are some reasonable arguments I have seen that cast it as basically a system that targets the poor, which is not really any better anyway).

Another issue is the casual acceptance of the rape, violence and torture that the inmates often inflict on each other which is poorly controlled – indeed some commentators even revel in it, and consider it part of the punishment that should be dealt to people incarcerated.


Mark Gergen 08.08.07 at 8:16 pm

On the list of reforms add changing how we count prisoners in the census. Under US law, a prisoner is counted in the census as a resident of the district where he is incarcerated. These numbers are used for purposes of legislative apportionment. It also affects the distribution of funds and services. For further information see http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/


Sebastian Holsclaw 08.08.07 at 9:03 pm

“Those two come off the top of my head among remedies to some of the structural racism in our criminal justice/prison system: but what else can we do?”

The number one thing we could do to remedy all sorts of problems with the prison system is make the medium range drugs–pot, cocaine, mushrooms, perhaps exctasy–legal.


Russell 08.08.07 at 9:24 pm

Good article, but I think it didn’t concentrate on the drug war nearly enough. Half the people in jail are there for drug crimes, and the racial disparity in drug arrests is just as bad, if not worse.

I agree with you Sebastian, but moreso…I think all drugs should be legalized in one way or another. The way I see it, the more dangerous the drug, the stronger the case for legalization.


matt 08.08.07 at 9:24 pm

What happend in the late 60′s that changed American attitudes so much? Well since I grew up in East New York at the time I can tell you it was the riots, which were a defacto ethnic cleansing of the inner cities, followed by thier deteriorization. A good book on the reaction of white voters to this is would be this one.

Obviously these these riots were the results of terrible racism, but also they were a product of the revolution of rising expectations triggered by civil rights and increased opportunity.


Joel Turnipseed 08.08.07 at 9:25 pm

Sebastian: maybe I wasn’t clear: my No. 2 point would presuppose this–but also provide a sort of redress for the effects of the current laws, so as not to grandfather in people screwed by our exceptionally stupid drug laws.


Sara 08.08.07 at 9:46 pm

Russell, might be of interest to you (and anyone wanting drug/prison stats) – about 60% of those in prison are there on drug charges: http://www.druglibrary.org/Schaffer/library/basicfax17.htm


Steve LaBonne 08.08.07 at 10:21 pm

…indeed some commentators even revel in it, and consider it part of the punishment that should be dealt to people incarcerated.

Working in law enforcement (as a forensic scientist) and living as well as working in an almost lily-white, conservative exurban area, I hear this crap constantly. People just cannot seem to get past their racism, fearfulness and anger and think about what they’re really saying. It’s depressing.


Steve LaBonne 08.08.07 at 10:22 pm

Oh, and what Sebastian said.


SheetWise 08.08.07 at 11:16 pm

Well — the Democrats had fought civil rights legislation tooth and nail for years. After it passed (thabks, Republicans), they needed a way to get the blacks back on the plantation — so they created the great society through welfare legislation.

Worked pretty damn well too.


david 08.08.07 at 11:21 pm

Lee Alston and Joe Ferrie have done a lot of work looking at the dissolution of Southern paternalism and the rise of the federal welfare state. I’m guessing the time periods match up here.


burritoboy 08.09.07 at 12:36 am

Matt’s citation of Jonathan Rieder’s Canarsie: Brooklyn Italians and Jews Against Liberalism is very apropos here. Excellent text.

What that text somewhat leaves out though (naturally, since it’s concentrating on a single neighborhood) is that the Republican party and other conservatives intentionally picked up and grossly exagerated the actually growing crime problems of the 1960s (which were primarily simply driven by the Baby Boomer generation was 16-26 at the moment) to political effect – as an intentional, nationally-planned political strategic club to demolish their opponents.


Luis Alegria 08.09.07 at 3:10 am

Mr. Henry,

I have been mugged twice at gunpoint in Oakland, during the high point of the crack epidemic, and I saw those people (who end up populating the jails subsequently no doubt) from a vantage that, unfortunately, is certainly not unique.

I am happy that these people are in jail, and I don’t think we should take the risk of releasing them. I am glad they will not menace other people. I hope they stay in jail until they are old and feeble.

As for Loury’s article, he is obviously full of passion, but his piece reeks of selective quotation and marshalling of facts. He seems to be happy to quote statistics from either end and claim they support his point, like a survey indicating that drug use has declined and elsewhere that drug hospitalizations have increased and therefore there was no effect on drug use. It seems to me that the data is ambiguous and does not support any of his claims.

One point he is missing is the reason for the 1960′s-70′s crime wave. He claims it was the baby boom. This is ridiculous. The baby boom resulted in an increase in young men, certainly. One would expect some increase in crime. But crime did not just increase, it tripled, or quadrupled, including violent crime. See –


In murders alone the differential murder rates (vs the early 1960′s) represents the casualties of a major war, about 10,000 a year for decades, a Vietnam war every 5 years. This he blithely dismisses. This is not an appropriate occasion for outrage ? He expects everyone to have stood for it passively ? Loury seems to imply a hatred for the general public, being as they are less moral than he is.

And as for the white vs black racial issue, yet again he is blinkered. The US Asian attitude towards crime and its effect on their racial views followed the same pattern as that of whites, with less accompanying guilt; this was the result of pure experience, not conscious or unconscious transferrence of a longstanding conflict. Its a reaction to plain facts.

And that is another fact – black crime rates in the early 1960′s were relatively comparable to white rates. Since then, whether incarceration rates were high or low they have multiplied far beyond white or any other groups rates. There is no doubt an independent social explanation for this, but it is definitely not one that Loury has in mind.

And at last, we come to rehabilitation. I don’t think anybody knows how to do it, certainly not in the modern, secular, dissolute social milieu.


Luis Alegria 08.09.07 at 3:15 am

Ms. Sara,

That 60% is for Federal prisoners only, as drug smuggling is a Federal crime. The vast majority of prisoners are not held by the Feds.

The total % held for drug charges is I believe a minority, and even for those drug charges may be only one of the crimes for which people have been imprisoned, as posession charges are often brought against people charged with other offenses.


SG 08.09.07 at 5:55 am

while I agree with the claim that some drugs should be decriminalised or legalised, my experience working in the field of drug and alcohol treatment tells me that legalising cocaine and heroin is a very very bad plan. From a civil rights point of view I agree with it, but from a practical point of view I think it`s crazy.

Heroin destroys peoples lives for more reasons than just that it is illegal. as just one small example, there is no way that making drugs illegal will somehow suddenly cause people to be able to inject cleanly and safely, to not share needles, and to avoid all the diseases which come from poor injecting technique. People will also continue to die from heroin use because (contrary to popular myth) it is not just purity which determines whether you will die from heroin use – uncontrollable factors, particularly the consumption of other drugs, are by far the largest predictor of overdose death.

Also, people who want to legalise heroin are faced with a charming choice – either the price doesn`t drop, in which case junkies remain junkies; or the price plummets enough to make the habit affordable, and a huge swathe of our young people disappear from productive society. Not a choice I think we should be making.

Ban guns, ban heroin, provide access to methadone and drug treatment, provide free, clean needles – and watch your HIV, Hep C and overdose death rates plummet. As well as violent crime. A much safer choice, in my opinion.


Meh 08.09.07 at 10:08 am

sg seems to conveniently ignore that the street price of heroin in many Asian countries is very low (although the strength of hit is a bit lower as refinement is more important for smuggling.)

The point being that there’s little evidence that availability triggers huge usage.

Also, there’s little evidence from the history of countries like the US that heroin has to lead to dropping out of productive society, so long as some reasonable amount is spent on treatment (much less than we spend on the “drug war” so far.)


Peter H 08.09.07 at 10:37 am

The total % held for drug charges is I believe a minority, and even for those drug charges may be only one of the crimes for which people have been imprisoned, as posession charges are often brought against people charged with other offenses.

According to this 2002 report by the Justice Policy Institute, “Justice Department surveys show that 52.7% of state prison inmates, 73.7% of jail inmates, and 87.6% of federal inmates were imprisoned for offenses which involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim.” I’d imagine that the percentage of non-violent offenders has increased since then.


Katherine 08.09.07 at 11:03 am

Here’s another suggestion – from an outside point of view (ie I’m not in the US, and know everything I know about the US jsutice system from the TV and newspapers), the Public Defender system seems to be be utterly broken. I get the impression that there is a huge disparity between the funding of prosecution and the funding of defence, meaning that the poor (and black) are in a system weighted heavily against them.

An alternative (and not necessarily a perfect one) is the UK system, where defence is done by private practitioners who claim their expenses from public funds (Legal Aid). Legal Aid has been drastically and outrageously cut back in recent years, but the disparity between the funding of prosecution (the Crown Prosecution Service) and defence is not so great. Sure, the rich can still pay more and get more, but the poor are not quite so shafted.


novakant 08.09.07 at 11:14 am

meh, so you’re arguing for the legalization of heroin now? are you sure you’ve thought this through and know what you’re talking about?

of course availability triggers usage, else why is alcohol abuse commonplace while heroin usage is not?

of course not every user drops out of society forever, but there are plenty who do and plenty who’ve never been and never will be part of ‘productive society’

also functioning in society is not incompatible with addiction, but lives are ruined nonetheless


Noni Mausa 08.09.07 at 12:07 pm

novakant said, in part: of course availability triggers usage, else why is alcohol abuse commonplace while heroin usage is not?

This is only partly true. For instance, I am certain that everyone on this list could go out at any hour of the day or night and buy gasoline. In some communities, the poorest, gas sniffing is the drug of choice for the most desperate. However, in a city like mine of 700,000 I would guess that there are certainly not even 1000 gas sniffers, despite its cheapness and universal availability.

Each of the drugs in common use has different factors which influence how widely it’s used. For instance, I don’t think it would ever be possible to ban alcohol use altogether, simply because it’s so easy to make (we’re not talking Château Lafitte here, but I distinctly remember making cheap wine with raisins and brown sugar in a jug in the crawl space of my family home when I was still in junior high school. However, I never did drink it. All the bubbling made me think I had done something wrong.)

On the other hand, tobacco in any form that a smoker would accept is relatively difficult to grow and process. The seeds are tiny, the plants themselves require quite a lot of space and careful rearing, and once harvested there are many stages of drying and curing. Nobody in North America is going to be growing tobacco in a closet or curing the leaves in their oven. Contraband tobacco by definition would have to come through manufacturers.
Here in Canada, there are a number of codeine formulations which are for sale in drugstores over the counter, without a prescription. This is a blessing to someone who needs serious pain control on a weekend, and so far as I know there is little or no codeine abuse in our communities — perhaps because the stuff is comparatively weak and because tolerance builds up so quickly that the very modest cost (about six dollars for a 4 ounce bottle of cough syrup) would soon become prohibitive.



Mcwop 08.09.07 at 12:13 pm

Luis Alegria has it right. I live in Baltimore which is crime hell. If someone gets busted on drug charges, I can almost guarantee you that they also have committed violent robbery and burglary, becuase that is what addicts do. It is easy to make drug charges stick, becuase these folks are carrying hard evidence.

I have zero sympathy left for crime as a 10 time victim. Baltimore’s crime is exploding this year.

If one wants to know why crime escalated from the 60′s through the 90′s then look no further than mass public housing. You stuff poor people together like rats, then you get problems. There are enough well documented studies of rat overcrowding. Note: I am not saying the poor are rats, but only that overcrowding leads to poor sociological behaviors. Public housing has destroyed generations, and created a cycle that will be very difficult to break.


Matt Weiner 08.09.07 at 12:15 pm

Katherine, what you describe sounds like an assigned counsel or court-appointed counsel system, which also exists in the U.S. and which doesn’t seem to be any more effective. It seems to be partly how the system is designed that matters, rather than whether the lawyers are full-time staff or assigned counsel. That’s not to deny that indigent defense is a big problem.

The sleeping lawyer in a Texas death penalty case was assigned counsel, I think.


Katherine 08.09.07 at 12:49 pm

No, it’s not assigned counsel or a court-appointed counsel system. The accused chooses their own lawyer. There is, practically speaking, a “duty solicitor” that is the one who takes the calls from people in custody who don’t already have a lawyer, but apart from that the courts have nothing to do with the selection of lawyers whatsoever.


Katherine 08.09.07 at 12:51 pm

…and when I say “apart from that”, I mistate things. The courts have nothing to do with the duty solicitor either.


Walt 08.09.07 at 1:19 pm

Luis: You support a war that has killed tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of foreigners that did nothing to us. You don’t get to complain about our modern secular decadent milieu.


rea 08.09.07 at 1:23 pm

I have been mugged twice at gunpoint in Oakland, during the high point of the crack epidemic . . . I am happy that these people are in jail, and I don’t think we should take the risk of releasing them.

We’re well-past the height of the crack epidemic–most of those people are dead. The crack epidemic had a self-limiting quality.

I’nm curious that you think the punishment for mugging ought to be nonparolable life in prison. We’ve certainly tried to deal with crime by imposing increasingly lengthy sentences–that’s a big part of why we have such a large proportion of the population in prison–but it shows little signs of being a effective remedy for crime in the long run. You’re calling for systemic changes that put more people in prison longer than what we have now, in a thread where the consensus seems to be that we have too many people in prison, with consequent damage to our society.

If drugs were legal, they would be cheaper and better regulated, and there would be less pressure on users and addicts to commit crimes to botain drugs.


Mcwop 08.09.07 at 1:54 pm

Rea, I agree that drug decriminalization may help, but tough sentencing for violent criminals does work (for example project exile in Richmond). A violent criminal in jail can’t mug me.

The consensus here may be that too many are in prison, but that does not mean the consensus is right? That is certainly not the consensus here in Baltimore, that is the consensus of people that live in safe places if you ask me. Baltimore criminals have extensive rap sheets with prior violent crimes, and hardly get any jail time. This happens becuase the judges believe there are too many in jail (sigh).

Does the consensus here believe that releasing a large % of the prison population will not cause an increase in violent crime?

I will go along with an mass scale release under one condition. That I get to legally carry a concealed gun here in Baltimore, where I have been a crime victim 12 times in 12 years – 3 times in the past 3 months.

The penalty for a violent crime should be 10 years in the slammer, if using a gun in any felony, then you get 20 years. If you get caught with a bag of pot, then I could really care less if one walks for that.


novakant 08.09.07 at 2:10 pm

legalization might reduce crime, but it would create a whole range of additional problems:

alcohol abuse is bad enough, but just imagine all the people getting pissed on a Friday night having the option of legally purchasing cocaine or even heroin; it would create a whole new group of addicts just because it’s easily available; the mixing of different drugs would pose additional health risks; the violence committed by people under the influence would increase even more; there would be no way of controlling a black market selling stretched and modified versions of the legal and regulated product

legalize Marijuana for all I care, but none of the stronger stuff


Katherine 08.09.07 at 2:10 pm

mcwop – rather depends on what you mean by “work” – yes, that violent criminal in jail might not be able to mug you, but would the money spent on keeping him in jail for 10 rather than 5 years have been better spent on preventing the next violent criminal, say. Cost-effectiveness is a serious thing when discussing penal reform – the cost of incarceration is enormous and it behoves those spending the money to looks seriously at whether it is the most effective way to spend the cash.


Steve LaBonne 08.09.07 at 2:50 pm

novakant, can you explain what making a drug illegal accomplishes, aside from 1) making it impossible to regulate even to the extent that alcohol, for example, is regulated, 2) driving its price up manyfold, and 3) turning over production and distribution to violent criminal cartels?


Katherine 08.09.07 at 2:54 pm

Novokant, you forget that cocaine and heroin have been legal before and nothing like the numbers of people drinking alcohol were users of cocaine and heroin. Certainly it’s not enough just to say that what happened in the past is what will happen in the future, but there is absolutely no evidence that all people now getting pissed on a Friday would turn to cocaine and heroin.

The violence committed by people under the influence is, in any event, mostly due to the need to raise funds to feed the habit, not the effect of the drug itself. Heroin, for example, doesn’t inherently make people violent – desperate addiction makes people violent in order to raise the necessary funds.

And legalisation is not the same as making something easily available; there are many ways and means to make something legal without flooding the streets – licensing, for example, or prescription only. You also have no real evidence that legalisation would mean no way of controlling black market selling – there is plenty of evidence, on the other hand, that making something legal dramatically squeezes black markets because there is less need for it.

It really is entirely unclear why you think those arguments hold of cocaine and heroin but not for marijuana. What is the difference exactly?


Noumenon 08.09.07 at 3:00 pm

Walt, Luis’s views on the war have no importance for this thread. On the topic at hand, he’s making a real contribution to this conversation. You aren’t.


Mcwop 08.09.07 at 3:18 pm

Katherine, I agree cost effectiveness is important, but just because incarceration is $$$$, does not mean it is not cost effective.

Baltimore let crime run out of control, and it lost its tax base as people moved out to safer havens. So there is no tax money for the programs you speak of, nor is their a solid community base to help prevent future criminals from evolving, and a base that has the power to demand accountability from say schools.

Education is incredibly important, but Baltimore lets criminal students run the schools to the detriment of others. So all that per pupil spending is wasted.


Katherine 08.09.07 at 3:30 pm

mcwop, I don’t think that incarceration is necessarily not cost-effective – but I think it is worth analysing that cost-effectiveness before saying “tough sentencing for violent criminals does work”, when your reasoning for saying so is simply that the mugger being in jail is evidence of incarceration working. With all due respect, that is taking an extremely narrow view of something working.


Matt Weiner 08.09.07 at 3:31 pm

Katherine, thanks for the explanation. I’m not sure that simply letting the accused choose their own defense lawyers would help; it takes a certain amount of social capital to know which lawyers are good, and the trick would presumably be getting good lawyers to accept legal aid rates anyway.* Which is to say, if you want the system to work you’ll have to (at least) put money into it. Which would be politically poisonous.

*This is not a slam at all current legal aid/court-appointed lawyers, some of whom are idealistically doing good work for poor compensation. But as the Joe Cannon case indicates, some of the court-appointed counsel are note effective.


Katherine 08.09.07 at 4:25 pm

Matt, indeed that’s not the entire basis for my suggestion. It was as much the impression I have the enormous disparity, in the US, of funding between public defenders/court-appointed lawyers and that of the prosecutors. I am basing that impression on not a great deal of good evidence, but it does seem that the somewhat inevitable unfairness inherent in the fact that the rich can probably afford better lawyers/more time from their lawyers is made worse by that disparity.


novakant 08.09.07 at 5:37 pm

Katherine, either you legalize a substance or you don’t. If you’re talking about programs to dispense drugs or substitutes to existing addicts under government and medical supervision according to a treatment plan, those exist as trials in several countries and have had mixed success. We can talk about that. But that is not legalizing drugs. Legalizing drugs would mean that anyone of legal age is entitled to buy significant amounts of these substances, just as they can buy significant amounts of alcohol today. I think this would be a disaster, since the inhibition threshold for getting involved with drugs would be significantly lowered and thus more addicts created. Young people looking for a kick would be more willing to try it out and the ones becoming addicted would be more at risk of ruining their lives. If the drugs are supposed to be cheap, in order to reduce crime to raise funds, that would be an additional incentive. The potency of said drugs and the nature of addiction will do the rest. I just don’t see how this is supposed to work, unless one considers addiction to be a tolerable life-style choice.


Steve LaBonne 08.09.07 at 6:15 pm

Let’s call it “decriminalization”, then, and I think we’ll all be pretty close to being on the same page.


Russell 08.09.07 at 7:55 pm

Hmm…everyone always talks about the massive damage that might be inflicted by some sort of legalization program–huge increases in the addicted population which causes massive public health problems, etc.

It seems people seldom look at both sides of the risk ledger here. What are the damages caused by having drugs illegal now?

1) Vast criminal and terrorist networks in Afghanistan, Columbia, Mexico, etc. get tremendous amounts of money from drug sales, something that wouldn’t happen under a legal market. Estimates of the size of the drug market vary from $100 billion (US) to $400 billion.

2) Illegal drugs cause crime. Marijuana is more valuable by weight than gold, and heroin is more valuable than uranium, so users are forced to steal to support their habit, and dealers settle disputes with violence. Neither of these would be a problem under a legal system.

3) Illegal drugs are unsafe. Most people that die doing illegal drugs are either poisoned from adulterants or overdose from too-pure stuff. With legal drugs of medicinal purity, these deaths would be greatly reduced, not to mention the stopping one way of spreading HIV and hepatitis.

4) Finally, prison overcrowding could be greatly reduced with nonviolent drug offenders staying out of prison, not to mention that the huge racial disparities in the prison system are intimately tied in with the war on drugs, as we saw in this post’s article.

I’m not even going to talk about the damages to civil liberties, police corruption, etc. I could go on for days.

Now what do we accomplish with this war on drugs? Are drugs hard to get in the US? I can attest that they are not. We are awash in a sea of illegal drugs, available to anyone who can pay. Drug use rates here are much higher than other countries which have more liberal drug laws.

One can argue that there would be huge increases in drug abuse, but I am skeptical. Middle America is not poised to start smoking crack the second it’s available. Besides, drug addicts would have a better chance anyway if drug treatment programs had half the money that is currently spent on enforcement.

Now, what I’m talking about could encompass all sorts of programs–anything from total legalization to some sort of decriminalization where harder drugs are only prescribed to addicts. My main point is ending the current enforcement regime.


Matt Weiner 08.09.07 at 9:00 pm

Completely agreed, Katherine; I think underfunding is probably the main driver, with poor quality control a close second. (I’m no expert here though I did used to volunteer in a small way for Vic Walczak.)


Peter H 08.09.07 at 9:55 pm

Baltimore criminals have extensive rap sheets with prior violent crimes, and hardly get any jail time. This happens becuase the judges believe there are too many in jail (sigh).

I don’t live in Baltimore or know the criminal justice system there, so I’m not going to challenge your experience, but you might find this information interesting:

“Over the past two decades Maryland’s state prison population has gone from 8,000 to 24,000 in 2001. The per capita rate of incarceration in Maryland during that same period grew from 183 to 422 per 100,000 inhabitants. The costs associated with that kind of prison growth are massive. During the 1980s and 1990s, Maryland’s per capita state spending on corrections grew by 100%. By way of comparison, per capita state spending on corrections grew at 4 times the rate of increase in higher education spending.”


burritoboy 08.09.07 at 11:25 pm

The two fools who marched in (luis and mcwop) show us exactly how the conservative ideological structure forces the US to the current crisis of racist over-imprisonment.

There will always be crime, of course. The US (and most other developed countries) precisely had higher crime rates during the period of 1966-1984. The reason for that period of higher crime rates is simple: the huge post-WWII baby boom entered it’s highest crime-prone period during that time, and the tail end of that period was worsened by crack cocaine. Higher imprisonments or lower imprisonments had little or nothing to do with this period’s beginning, evolution or end.

This higher crime period was falsely manipulated into being a part of the worldwide conservative movement – part of the “failure of liberalism” theme. Why that theme succeeded so spectacularly (though it was equally false here as in other nations) in the US versus elsewhere was:

1. it was a central ideological prop to the narrative that supported the primary (Republican) ruling party’s drive to gain the support of the South. Essentially, falsely portraying a black crime wave gave support to the post-Jim Crow polite racism that is a central part of the ideology of the South.

2. powerful groups – particularly real estate developers and real estate agents – found it a very useful myth to encourage turn-over as whites were propagandized to move into new real estate developments in the suburbs.

3. it was a very useful myth for insurgency politicians (Koch in New York, for instance) to justify overturning the largely successful urban New Deal Democrat political machines in the large cities.

4. The overall policy of the federal government since the beginning of WWII has been to artificially promote higher levels of development and population growth in suburban developments in the West and South than those areas would naturally support. This high-level federal policy ended up merging in the popular imagination with the crime wave. The popular imagination generally refused to admit that the growth in the South and West was primarily government driven – so the popular imagination ascribed this growth to the better “entrepreneurship” of the South and West versus the East and MidWest. This comparative disparagement of the East and MidWest in favor of the South and West generated a narrative where: a. the conservative Republicans within these regions could outflank and eventually destroy the previous elite of the Republican party, which was based in the East.
b. as already mentioned, brought these conservative Republicans a massive base of new support in the South.
c. allowed the conservative Republicans easy policy “wins” in controlling regions with less crime (simply because their regions were both less developed and heavily supported by large levels of government money), lower levels of minority populations and higher percieved levels of “entrepreneurship”.


SG 08.10.07 at 8:30 am

A lot of people who argue against keeping heroin and cocaine illegal do so without a full knowledge of what the consequences of these drugs being used really are, and perhaps without a full knowledge of the aetiology and prognosis of dependence on these drugs. People who support legalisation also tend to exaggerate the role of criminalisation in exaggerating the poor effects of drug use. Here are some pointers:

1) proper criminalisation of drug use has not been properly tried in many countries due to the extensive corruption in modern police forces. I would argue that it has recently begun to work in Australia (since 1996, the Woods commission) and the consequences of effective policing have actually been quite positive (see: the heroin shortage)

2) generally in junkies the criminality precedes the drug use. This has been known since the work of Lee Robins in the early 70s, and is abundantly evident to anyone who has spent any time working with heroin users. Their problem is extreme poverty, abuse, childhood institutionalisation, lack of edcuation, and dangerous peer networks in about that order. They aren`t generally criminal junkies – they`re junky criminals.

3) It is not the case (as suggested by say Russell at comment 40) that legalising heroin will prevent it`s main negative side effect, which is instant death. The main cause of overdose death in heroin users is not “high purity”, but combining alcohol and heroin (and to a lesser extent benzos). Legalising heroin means that it will be much easier for drug users to mix alcohol and heroin, and may actually increase their risk of death.

4) knowing your dose is not the panacea for overdose death, nor is it necessarily guaranteed in a legalised heroin economy. During the 60s various drugs which are now illegal could be used legally, and no-one knew the dose they were taking. Also, everyone who drinks alcohol knows the dose, but most people occasionally get drunker than they want, have a worse hangover than they want, or lose control of their drug use halfway through a session. When this happens with heroin you die; and if you combine uncertain dose-control with alcohol and uncertain dose control with heroin you definitely die.

Legalising heroin means a bunch of people with a predilection for reckless, self-destructive behaviour, who generally already have ready access to alcohol (the dose response of which most adults can`t control) will get ready access to another drug which, when taken in conjunction with alcohol, causes you to die.

They will also presumably be injecting a lot more of a substance which really does reduce ones ability to function – go to a cafe in any junky suburb and watch the kids keeling over in their seats for an hour or two and ponder how they will hold down a job? They`re doing that 3 times a day at least right now for $25 a shot, do you think they won`t do it a few more times at $10 a shot?

And every one of those additional shots, in an unsafe environment, comes with the HIV risk…

it`s a disaster waiting to happen.

(Oh and Novakant at 38, a small correction – heroin subsitutes, i.e. methadone, are not successful “trials”. They are the world best standard in heroin treatment, and used extensively in government programs around the world).


novakant 08.10.07 at 10:48 am

you’re correct sg, good post btw


Mcwop 08.10.07 at 12:39 pm

Burritoboy, I guess the one murder per day in Baltimore is a conspiracy by the suburban home builders to scare people out of the city. We are second behind Detroit in per capita murder. That is the tip of the crime story here, where residents are guaranteed to be victims of some crime. Who is the fool? Go back to your nice safe neighborhood to revel in your intellectual prowess.


Steve LaBonne 08.10.07 at 3:57 pm

Where is the empirical evidence that use of decriminalized, regulated cocaine or heroin is likely to be far more widespread than use under current conditions? The “war on drugs” pioneered the art of scaring people with scenarios pulled out of the proponents’ posteriors, long before the “war on terror” adopted the same propaganda mode.


burritoboy 08.10.07 at 4:49 pm


I live in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. I used to live on the South side of Chicago.

Sure, there’s a lot of crime in Baltimore. I have no doubt that that’s the case. The questions are:

1. What are the causes of crime? If the causes of crime aren’t cured or reduced by higher imprisonment levels, then more imprisonment could be actively negative (as well as spending huge amounts of scarce resources on a non-solution).

2. A preferred solution of high levels of long-term imprisonment implies that the crime problem is caused by a relatively small number (even the US can only imprison 1% of the population) of criminals who are effectively sociopathic (i.e., they won’t be deterred by rehabilitation, short jail sentences or other non-jail punishments even before they initially enter the criminal justice system).

3. Baltimore has already been trying for decades to use the solution of higher levels of imprisonment to combat high rates of crime, and hasn’t succeeded. Meanwhile, crime rates in many other urban areas have fallen substantially. What does it imply that Detroit and Baltimore have continued to have high crime rates while other cities have not?


Danielle Day 08.10.07 at 6:30 pm

Here in Connecticut there was a horrible crime recently. Two parolees murdered an entire family (except for the father who was left for dead) in a botched (or maybe successful, from their point of view) home invasion. They were white. But of caucasian men, they are a small minority.

There are too many Black men in prison because their society, to a great extent is poisoned. The fact is, Black men commit significantly more crimes than their white, Hispanic, or Asian counterparts.

Here’s what Bill Cosby has to say: “In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on… People in jail, and women having children by five, six different men… these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English.

The full article is here: http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_3_black_america.html

Like upright, law-abiding Muslims who stand up to the lunatics in their midst, it’s time for standup, respectable Blacks to call bullshit on the evil that’s an unfortunate, but very real, aspect of their culture.


Mcwop 08.10.07 at 7:34 pm

Burritoboy, Baltimore crime is out of control for many reasons including lax enforcement, and penalties. Crime is out of control becuase government cannot get out of its own way here. Our prison population has increased becuase of cumulative crime over the years. If they actually put all violent offenders in Jail our prison population might double from current levels.

Reasons for our problems:
1) Horrible, horrible schools, while officials accept that status quo. This erodes the tax base, as many potential residents flee to the counties the second they have kids.
2) Anywhere from 30,000 – 50,000 heroin addicts in Baltimore, and Buprenorphine treatment, which can be prescribed at individual doctors’ offices is tangled in red tape such as low Medicaid payments, bureaucratic hassles such as pr-authorization requirements, and confusing regulations
3) Too few officers to follow through on preventing crime through a visible presence, and city leaders refuse to take the NEEDED steps to get more officers, and retain the ones we do have. High presence prevents crimes from ever happening.
4) Weak sentences for violent criminals (note in above comments I do agree that low level drug offenses such as pot should not be imprisoned, and I would rather just give h-addicts their drugs). Our state’s attorney refuses to use successful initiatoves such as project exile, and routinely does not try violent cases as policy.
5) Every violent crime I read about each day is committed by someone who previously served time for a violent crime maybe 1 or 2 years
6) Legacy of mass public housing, which damaged the community immensely.

Tough enforcement, and imprisonment is the short term solution. Hopefully the tax base will return to the city, and then the other long term solutions (fixing horrid schools) will have the needed resources (monetary, and community resources).

I have never claimed that imprisonment is the only solution, but only a part. I have several posts above that acknowledge other causes, and solutions.


Mcwop 08.10.07 at 8:46 pm

Here are studies that show crime drops as prison population increases:

This sums it up nicely.



If you look at murders per 100,000 that stat has declined as the prison population has increased. Could that be becuase more potential perps are in jail, or that chance of getting caught is higher?

This chart is interesting. As involuntary commitment to mental health facilities came to an end the prison population shoots up.

Another chart:

More links that show putting criminals in jail reduces crime:


People may not like this method in fighting crime, but it does work.


Russell 08.10.07 at 9:20 pm


Care to provide links to your claims on 1), 2), 3), and 4)?

You said:

proper criminalisation of drug use has not been properly tried in many countries due to the extensive corruption in modern police forces. I would argue that it has recently begun to work in Australia (since 1996, the Woods commission) and the consequences of effective policing have actually been quite positive (see: the heroin shortage)

I would counter that the extensive corruption seen in modern police forces is precisely because of the war on drugs. Police forces are simply not capable of resisting the enormous corruptive pressure put on them by criminal gangs, and it only takes one bad cop to smuggle tremendous amounts of drugs into the US.

You said:

It is not the case (as suggested by say Russell at comment 40) that legalising heroin will prevent it`s main negative side effect, which is instant death. The main cause of overdose death in heroin users is not “high purity”, but combining alcohol and heroin (and to a lesser extent benzos). Legalising heroin means that it will be much easier for drug users to mix alcohol and heroin, and may actually increase their risk of death.

Though this is somewhat true, I think you draw the wrong conclusions. First, not all people who die of a heroin “overdose” do so because of a polydrug interaction–estimates in that study range from 29% to 75%. Your characterization of this as “instant death” is an exaggeration:

Another variable of interest, the interval of time between the final injection of heroin and death, has been estimated in several studies (Garriot & Sturner, 1973; Monforte, 1977; Nakamura, 1978; Manning et al., 1983; Zador et al., 1996). Instant death following heroin administration does not appear to be the norm. Manning et al. (1983) reported that only 23% of cases collapsed immediately after injection. Only 14% of cases in the study by Zador et al. (1996) were classified as instant, with 22% estimated to have died over a period of time longer than 3 hours. An interval of more than 3 hours was reported in over half (52%) of cases studied by Garriot & Sturner (1973), while Nakamura (1978) reported 44% of cases having an interval of greater than 2 hours. Although figures were not given, Monforte (1977) also commented that instant deaths in the cases he examined appeared rare. The fact that most heroin-related fatalities appear to occur over a period of time presents an important opportunity for intervention.

Regardless, it remains true that under a decriminalized model, “overdose” deaths would be greatly reduced:

It would seem that a large proportion of deaths attributed to overdose occur in the presence of other heroin users, who are often reluctant to seek help. Interventions to address the fears preventing users from calling an ambulance need to be considered and implemented. Heroin users need to be encouraged to call an ambulance as soon as they recognize the signs of acute narcosis. Police also should be approached to refrain from making arrests at sites of suspected overdoses, as this dissuades heroin users from seeking help.

You said:

generally in junkies the criminality precedes the drug use. This has been known since the work of Lee Robins in the early 70s, and is abundantly evident to anyone who has spent any time working with heroin users. Their problem is extreme poverty, abuse, childhood institutionalisation, lack of edcuation, and dangerous peer networks in about that order. They aren`t generally criminal junkies – they`re junky criminals.

This seems to me an unfounded and incorrect assertion. In the 19th and early 20th century, opiates of all kinds, sometimes quite powerful ones, were available to anyone without a prescription in cough medicine, snake oils, etc. And yet there were few problems:

Opiate use was also frowned upon in some circles as immoral— a vice akin to dancing, smoking, theater-going, gambling, or sexual promiscuity. But while deemed immoral, it is important to note that opiate use in the nineteenth century was not subject to the moral sanctions current today. Employees were not fired for addiction. Wives did not divorce their addicted husbands, or husbands their addicted wives. Children were not taken from their homes and lodged in foster homes or institutions because one or both parents were addicted. Addicts continued to participate fully in the life of the community. Addicted children and young people continued to go to school, Sunday School, and college. Thus, the nineteenth century avoided one of the most disastrous effects of current narcotics laws and attitudes— the rise of a deviant addict subculture, cut off from respectable society and without a “road back” to respectability.

You mentioned HIV–the only reason heroin users spread HIV is because it is illegal to obtain fresh needles without a prescription, so they share needles. In fact, I doubt heroin would be used at all if it weren’t for the black market. Heroin, biochemically speaking, is exactly the same as morphine (it is hydrolyzed to morphine in the brain)–just more potent, and therefore more easily smuggled. Under a decriminalization scheme, morphine (or even raw opium) would be so cheap that it wouldn’t be worth it to make it into heroin, moreover, addicts could eat or smoke their drugs rather than inject them, so the transmission of HIV and hepatitis via this route would be virtually eliminated.

My main point is that many of the dangers of drugs are inextricably tied up in the fact that they are illegal, and these dangers would be vastly reduced if drugs were decriminalized.

You didn’t mention, by the way, anything about my point of drug prohibition supporting criminal cartels and terrorists. Care to comment?


corvad 08.10.07 at 11:03 pm

Two points: the war on drugs and the hyperpunitive “penal state” that’s been around since the mid 80s have been, since the beginning, a bipartisan effort. Democrats jumped on the tough on crime bandwagon to outmanouver Republicans, beginning the cycle of asinine criminal justice policies that have, as one result, produced an incarceration rate per capita of black Americans that is much higher than South Africa under Apartheid (see the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) web site.

Second, decriminalization in the US is almost impossible given that the US has catalyzed and funded transnational criminalization and the militarization of narco-policing since the mid-1980s — switching tracks now would mean admitting that we’ve been a bad global citizen. Our government’s record on admitting it was wrong is abysmal. Imagine: “whoops, guess we’ll just shut down all those international police training programs, eliminate the DEA, INL, etc etc, and stop threatening to use our IMF and World Bank vetos against countries that won’t cooperate with our program, oh and also USAID …” This country is seriously in need of voter education before anything like that could happen. The drug war has expanded because the people it affects the most are politically and economically disenfranchised, don’t matter to the politicians and politics. Political mobilization in the US on this issue rests on an alignment of fiscal conservatives with social liberals around this issue.


corvad 08.11.07 at 1:59 am

correction: obviously s. africa wasn’t incarcerating black Americans. it should be clear what i meant — incarceration of black S. Africans.


Georgiana 08.11.07 at 2:29 am

I’m surprised in this vigorous discussion no one has mentioned recent research which has shown a startingly strong relationship between childhood lead paint exposure and propensity to commit crime. The statistical relationship holds up for different times and countries:

Nevin found that 1941-1975 gasoline lead use explained 90% of the 1964-1998 variation in the USA violent crime rate, and paint lead trends from 1879-1938 explained a 10-fold rise and subsequent fall in the USA murder rate from 1900-1959. His new study reveals a similarly stunning relationship between lead exposure trends and USA burglary and index crime rates (mostly property crime), and shows the same relationship between lead exposure and crime in other nations with very different lead exposure and crime trends.


More chillingly, recent literature suggests that even slight lead poisoning alters brain development, and the damage is not reversible. Which, if this study holds up, means if lead poisoning isn’t dealt with, the crime rate will remain as long as children live in older, poorly maintained buildings, with old water systems, and near freeways, all pretty likely occurrences in poorer neighborhoods in most older city centers.

So the war on drugs, as problematic as it is, might be a side show to the real problem.


engels 08.11.07 at 1:35 pm

Our government’s record on admitting it was wrong is abysmal.

True, but that doesn’t mean it can’t make a U-turn if it wants to.


SG 08.13.07 at 11:43 am

Russell, your points are well put and I would like to respond, but have to give my apologies for taking 3 days – probably no-one`s reading this thread anymore. I have been in Osaka at the Summersonic festival, and haven`t had computer access (or the desire to use one).

First, you are of course correct that I should not have said “instant death”, since very few substances on this earth kill instantly. I should have said “random, rapid and unpredictable” death.

You argue based on Darke et al that polydrug interactions are present in “only” 25-75% of drug overdose deaths, but this does not in itself defend your claim that purity is the sole problem, or that “knowing one`s dose” could prevent death. The same studies by Darke and Zador have shown that those who died had lower blood alcohol concentrations of heroin than those who do not die of overdose. This is why the url you provide has a heading “A new perspective: polydrug use theory.”

This is also why the world of Drug and Alcohol research is focussing so heavily on polydrug use and its consequences.

Your comment regarding whether or not heroin users are unwilling to call for help for their fellows is dependent upon out of date research. In the UK and Australia at least, extensive education efforts have been “considered and implemented”, and have vastly reduced the unwillingness of heroin users to call for help, and police no longer “ambulance chase.” Now the main reason heroin users in Australia do not call an ambulance is irresponsibility, or a mistaken idea that their friend is “just sleeping it off” (and health promotion has been implemented to reduce this phenomenon as well).

You claim my point that criminality precedes drug use is “unsupported and unfounded”, but sadly you are wrong. Lee Robins is famous for this work, which is perhaps well summarised in her Thomas Okey lecture (published in Addiction).

You go on to argue that this theory is contradicted by historical experience of opium use in the UK. But in the 19th century opium was smoked or administered through a tincture, administration routes with almost zero chance of ovrdose. Even then there were concerns about the effect of opium use on social cohesion, and it is telling that supporters of opium legalisation never cite the Chinese experience, which is generally considered to have been quite bad.

You then go on to state that criminalisation is associated with high rates of HIV. This is also not true, since in pretty much every developed nation except the US and Sweden, clean needles are available free even though heroin is illegal. As a consequence Australian heroin users have very low rates of HIV, even though heroin use is illegal.

Finally, as regards police corruption: just because it is associated with illegal drug use does not mean that it is because of illegal drug use. Police are corrupt for many reasons, and corruption is as old as the force. Corruption has also been shown (in Australia at least) to be a systemic problem, caused by lack of proper management of police culture, and not a consequence of individuals giving in to criminal pressure. Obviously because police exist to prevent illegal activities, corruption must involve those illegal activities, and so long as heroin is illegal corruption will exist. However, with a proper police culture, this corruption can be minimized. Since the Wood commission in New South Wales, Australia, the police service has been reformed and it was coincidentally 3 years after the reforms of that commission were implemented that the heroin shortage struck. Coincidence? Maybe…

As for the issue of drug money funding terrorists and cartels, I don`t really believe that terrorism is a serious problem worldwide – more Australians die every year of heroin overdose than of terrorism, for example. Also the reason that people in Afghanistan grow poppies is because other crops are not as profitable. Were those crops as profitable as opium, I`m sure no-one would be arguing that wheat money funds terrorism (which, in fact, in Iraq, it probably has). It`s a furphy. Legalising heroin tomorrow won`t change the structure of poppy growing markets in Afghanistan, and it won`t change the allegiances of the farmers or the behaviour of the middlemen.


SG 08.13.07 at 11:47 am

I would like to add for CT readers in America: actually, the rest of the world is getting along quite well with heroin being illegal. Just because your government is so puritanical it doesn`t even know it has an arsehole (and what a big one it has!) doesn`t mean you have to consider some kind of weird pie-in-the-sky alternative model when the rest of us have a perfectly functional model based on keeping the drug illegal and treating its abusers like human beings. You could just use ours!


Katherine 08.13.07 at 3:05 pm

ag, if you are talking about the UK (if) then let me respectfully disagree.


SG 08.13.07 at 3:38 pm

Katherine, just because the UK has a serious problem of drugs and crime doesn`t mean that the fault is a failure of the response to drugs. It could just mean that there are social problems in the UK which would be a lot, lot worse given uncontrolled access to the drugs, or given a US drug-war approach.


burritoboy 08.13.07 at 7:48 pm

“Horrible, horrible schools, while officials accept that status quo. This erodes the tax base, as many potential residents flee to the counties the second they have kids.”

Most, if not all, major urban school districts are horrible. Yet crime has declined in most cities.

“Anywhere from 30,000 – 50,000 heroin addicts in Baltimore, and Buprenorphine treatment, which can be prescribed at individual doctors’ offices is tangled in red tape such as low Medicaid payments, bureaucratic hassles such as pr-authorization requirements, and confusing regulations”

Unless Baltimore in particular has some very much larger problem with heroin than other cities(which is possible, but seems improbable), the problem with heroin addiction is very common in all other major urban centers.

“Too few officers to follow through on preventing crime” because of…..”Hopefully the tax base will return to the city” precisely.

The schools are bad because Baltimore’s economy is weak.

The tax receipts are low because Baltimore’s economy is weak.

There aren’t enough police because Baltimore’s economy is weak.

There are many drug addicts because Baltimore’s economy is weak.

Baltimore’s crime rates look like Detroit’s because……..ok, enough of the broken record. The core cause is that Baltimore’s economy is weak, and imprisoning 50% of the population wouldn’t make it any stronger.

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