Reversing Mass Imprisonment

by Kieran Healy on July 17, 2008

Bruce Western writes in the current Boston Review about the prison boom and its effects, summarizing findings and extending arguments he’s been developing for a few years, and which I’ve often written about here.

There are now 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate since 1980. During the fifty years preceding our current three-decade surge, the scale of imprisonment was largely unchanged. And the impact of this rise has hardly been felt equally in society; the American prison boom is as much a story about race and class as it is about crime control. Nothing separates the social experience of blacks and whites like involvement in the criminal justice system. Blacks are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and large racial disparities can be seen for all age groups and at different levels of education. One-in-nine black men in their twenties is now in prison or jail. Young black men today are more likely to do time in prison than serve in the military or graduate college with a bachelor’s degree. … Nearly all the growth in imprisonment since 1980 has been concentrated among those with no more than a high school education. Among young black men who have never been to college, one in five are incarcerated, and one in three will go to prison at some time in their lives. The intimate link between school failure and incarceration is clear at the bottom of the education ladder where 60 percent of black, male high school dropouts will go to prison before age thirty-five. … These astonishing levels of punishment are new. We need only go back two decades to find a time when imprisonment was not a common event in the lives of black men with less than a college education.

… The failure of the great experiment in mass incarceration is rooted in three fallacies of the tough-on-crime perspective. First, there is the fallacy of us and them. For tough-on-crime advocates, the innocent majority is victimized by a class of predatory criminals, and the prison works to separate us from them. The truth is that the criminals live among us as our young fathers, brothers, and sons. Drug use, fighting, theft, and disorderly conduct are behavioral staples of male youth. Most of the crime they commit is perpetrated on each other. This is reflected most tragically in the high rates of homicide victimization among males under age twenty-five, black males in particular. Some young men do become more seriously and persistently involved in crime, but neither the criminal-justice system nor criminologists can predict who those serious offenders will be or when they will stop offending. Thus the power to police and punish cannot separate us from criminals with great distinction, but instead flows along the contours of social inequality. Visible markers like age, skin color, and neighborhood become rough proxies for criminal threat. Small race and class differences in offending are amplified at each stage of criminal processing from arrest through conviction and sentencing. As a result the prison walls we built with such industry in the 1980s and ’90s did not keep out the criminal predators, but instead divided us internally, leaving our poorest communities with fewer opportunities to join the mainstream and deeply skeptical of the institutions charged with their safety.

Second, there is the fallacy of personal defect. Tough-on-crime politics disdains the criminology of root causes and traces crime not to poverty and unemployment but to the moral failures of individuals. Refusing to resist temptation or defer gratification, the offender lacks empathy and affect, lacks human connection, and is thus less human than the rest of us. The diagnosis of defective character points to immutable criminality, stoking cynicism for rehabilitative efforts and justifying the mission of semi-permanent incapacitation. The folk theory of immutable criminality permits the veiled association of crime with race in political talk. But seeking criminality in defects of character, the architects of the prison boom ignored the great rise in urban youth unemployment that preceded the growth in murder rates in the 1960s and ’70s. They ignored the illegal drug trade, which flourished to fill the vacuum of legitimate economic opportunity left by urban deindustrialization. They ignored, too, the fact that jobs are not just a source of economic opportunity but of social control that routinizes daily life and draws young men into a wide array of socially beneficial roles. Lastly, they ignored the bonds of mutual assistance that are only weakly sustained by communities of concentrated poverty. Thus young men would return home from prison only to easily surmount once again the same stunted social barriers to crime that contributed to their imprisonment in the first place.

The final fallacy of the tough-on-crime perspective is the myth of the free market. The free market fallacy sees the welfare state as pampering the criminal class and building expectations of something for nothing. Anti-poverty programs were trimmed throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and poor young men largely fell through the diminished safety net that remained. For free marketeers, the question was simply whether or not to spend public money on the poor—they did not anticipate that idle young men present a social problem. Without school, work, or military service, these poor young men were left on the street-corner, sometimes acting disorderly and often fuelling fears of crime. We may have skimped on welfare, but we paid anyway, splurging on police and prisons. Because incarceration was so highly concentrated in particular neighborhoods and areas within them, certain city blocks received millions of dollars in “correctional investment”—spending on the removal of local residents by incarceration. These million-dollar blocks reveal a question falsely posed. We never faced a choice of whether to spend money on the poor; the dollars diverted from education and employment found their way to prison construction. Our political choice, it turned out, was not how much we spent on the poor, but what to spend it on.

{ 126 comments }

1

blah 07.17.08 at 5:35 pm

I think the writer ignores one major problem with reversing mass imprisonment: it worked in dramatically reducing crime in the 1990s.

http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/LevittUnderstandingWhyCrime2004.pdf

You cannot carry out a cost/benefit analysis of maintaining a high prison population unless you seriously consider the benefits.

2

Kieran Healy 07.17.08 at 5:44 pm

I think you should read the article, and Punishment and Inequality in America. Viz:

Skeptics may concede that mass incarceration injured social justice, but surely, they would contend, it contributed to the tremendous decline in crime through the 1990s. Indeed, the crime decline of the ’90s produced a great improvement in public safety. From 1993 to 2001, the violent crime rate fell considerably, murder rates in big cities like New York and Los Angeles dropped by half or more, and this progress in social wellbeing was recorded by rich and poor alike. Yet, when I analyzed crime rates in this period, I found that rising prison populations did not reduce crime by much. The growth in state imprisonment accounted for 2-5 percent of the decline in serious crime—one-tenth of the crime drop from 1993 to 2001. The remaining nine-tenths was due to factors like the increasing size of local police forces, the pacification of the drug trade following the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, and the role of local circumstances that resist a general explanation. So a modest decline in serious crime over an eight year period was purchased for $53 billion in additional correctional spending and half a million new prison inmates: a large price to pay for a small reduction. If we add the lost earnings of prisoners to the family disruption and community instability produced by mass incarceration, we cannot but acknowledge that a steep price was paid for a small improvement in public safety. Several examples further demonstrate that the boom may have been a waste because crime can be controlled without large increases in imprisonment. Violent crime in Canada, for example, also declined greatly through the 1990s, but Canadian incarceration rates actually fell from 1991 to 1999. New York maintained particularly low crime rates through the 2000s, but has been one of the few states to cut its prison population in recent years.

3

Sebastian 07.17.08 at 5:59 pm

Focusing on gross ‘prison population’ seems too broad to be useful. If you want to argue for example that we shouldn’t incarcerate for most drug crimes (IMO a very sensible policy) you can do that without dragging in stats that include murderers for instance.

This also explains “New York maintained particularly low crime rates through the 2000s, but has been one of the few states to cut its prison population in recent years.”

It isn’t that the ‘prison population’ was cut, it was who in that population was cut that makes it possible to have a lower prison population with low crime rates.

4

Mr Art 07.17.08 at 6:00 pm

The author criticises “folk theory of immutable criminality” but we are only ever offered (by leftwing criminologists) correlations between criminality and poverty. I say that this failure to prove causation makes the poverty-causes-crime argument just as much a folk theory.

5

Shelby 07.17.08 at 6:02 pm

Without any intention of defending the tough-on-crime paradigm, how accurate is it to say that anti-poverty programs were trimmed throughout the 1970s? The 1980s seems more defensible, but wasn’t it really the ’90s when the main cuts came? Also, is it fair to assume that the so-called safety net of welfare programs was what had previously prevented young black men from pursuing criminal activity and being incarcerated? Was crime so dramatically higher among the relevant populations before these programs were in place?

I think the soaring rates of incarceration reflect (among other things) misplaced social priorities and in particular a terrible overemphasis on criminalizing drugs.

I don’t expect you to answer my questions, Kieran (though if you want to touch on them that’s fine). But Bruce Western doesn’t point to any data, underlying research, or other support for his assertions. Are his statements widely accepted as proven, in your opinion?

6

abb1 07.17.08 at 6:10 pm

Now, what about this explanation: to keep prices/inflation down the economy needs an underclass; reserve army of unemployed labor, as they say. Individuals in the underclass have little to lose, no positive incentive to play by the rules. So, they need negative reinforcement. It’s provided by the ‘justice system’. End of story.

7

Walt 07.17.08 at 6:16 pm

I’m sure that this discussion will be as illuminating as all Crooked Timber discussions.

I read through the Levitt article. It’s really clearly written. I thought the evidence presented for the importance of prison was weak, but to be fair it reads like a survey article (which I assume it is).

8

blah 07.17.08 at 6:22 pm

Levitt estimates that roughly 1/3 of crime reduction in 1990s can be attributed to increased incarceration. That is not modest at all.

I also wonder whether any of the social welfare policies that Western favors would be politically tenable during a period of rising crime, which would be one potential danger of emptying out the prisons.

9

Kieran Healy 07.17.08 at 6:23 pm

Like I say, the article is a compressed version of a larger argument. Western’s account, as I read it, is partly economic and partly political. Economically, the collapse of labor markets in the early 70s in many American cities, and the growth of chronically jobless ghettos, set the stage — incarceration increases most amongst groups with high rates of unemployment. Politically, the shift from a correctional view of the prison system to a punitive view has its roots in the 1960s (a la Nixonland) as law-and-order Republicans came to define their agenda in opposition to Great Society programs and the social consequences of the Civil Rights movement. The 1970s War on Crime, and its extension to the War on Drugs in the 80s, are the political descendants of this view. Beginning the 70s and accelerating in the 80s, state-level and federal policies tended to cut social services, restrict judicial discretion in sentencing, increase spending on prison construction, and scale back or eliminate the social-work/reintegrative aspects of the parole system.

10

Kieran Healy 07.17.08 at 6:25 pm

Levitt estimates that roughly 1/3 of crime reduction in 1990s can be attributed to increased incarceration. That is not modest at all.

I read through the Levitt article. It’s really clearly written. I thought the evidence presented for the importance of prison was weak, but to be fair it reads like a survey article (which I assume it is).

There’s disagreement about the magnitude, yes. Bruce’s work on this is accessible and very lucid.

11

noen 07.17.08 at 6:29 pm

Things will have to get far worse before they can get better. The system will have to collapse before it can be replaced with something more equitable. The Crime of Punishment by Karl Menninger today reads like a alien history from a distant and forgotten past. Which I suppose it is.

There is also a good deal of torture going on in those private prison. You’ll never hear about it in the press.

12

blah 07.17.08 at 6:35 pm

If anybody is interested, I found this review of Western’s book:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20056#fnr2

13

Walt 07.17.08 at 6:48 pm

blah, I meant that the strength of the evidence was weak, not the estimated magnitude. I didn’t find the evidence presented by Levitt to be persuasive, but since that section read like a survey, maybe I would find a fuller presentation more persuasive.

14

rageahol 07.17.08 at 6:52 pm

noen:

you mean in addition to the blind eye turned to prison rape?

15

Sebastian 07.17.08 at 6:59 pm

I guess my point is that it seems weird to frame gross prison population numbers as a harm in itself. Holding people inappropriately in prison is clearly harmful. Incarcerating people appropriately isn’t. There are all sorts of arguments about how much is inappropriate for certain crimes. That is the crux of the important issue and where useful focus can be spent.

Gross prison population numbers and trying to analyze them as if they were deeply meaningful divorced from that (as if the government were just selecting them wholly by lottery or something) doesn’t seem all that helpful.

16

lisa 07.17.08 at 7:14 pm

“it worked in dramatically reducing crime in the 1990s.”

I’m sure imprisoning even more people without education for many minor crimes would reduce crime even further. Let’s have the police follow them around. I’m sure they’ll catch them at something. We’ll all be so safe. And won’t that be nice?

17

Rich B. 07.17.08 at 7:25 pm

There are now 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate since 1980.

I think the soaring rates of incarceration reflect (among other things) misplaced social priorities and in particular a terrible overemphasis on criminalizing drugs.

Looking at the statistics for state incarcerations from 1980 to 2004:

Increased factor in incarceration by type of crime:

Violent crime: 3.8 (173K to 663K prisoners)
Property crime: 2.97 (89K to 265K)
Drug Crime: 13.1 (19K to 249K)
Public Order Crimes: 7.16 (12K to 89K)

http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/corrtyptab.htm

Drug crimes is obviously a major factor, but take that out entirely and you still have a tripling or more of the number of criminals.

Maybe there’s a good reason to lower prison sentences for “Drunk and Disorderly Conduct” offenses. Maybe we lock up non-violent pick-pockets for too long. I don’t know.

The “too many prisoners” argument, however, is much broader than the (certainly overlapping) “we shouldn’t criminalize drugs” argument, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of details given on how, in particular, incarceration rates should be decreased.

I mean, the creation of ghettos and permanent underclasses might be the real honesttogod cause, but if the increased incarceration rate is because the underclass is actually committing more crimes, then its not nearly enough to say that the incarceration rate is “too high.” If you want to lower it, you’ve got to come up with an answer of how (decriminalize robbery? shorter sentences for resisting arrest?) during the interim period between now and when societal factors lead to fewer crimes being committed.

“Legalize drugs” may be the easy first step, but once you get past that there’s still a lot of heavy lifting to do.

18

Bloix 07.17.08 at 7:29 pm

rageahol makes a good point. There is crime in prisons. When we talk about a reduction in the crime rate, we mean the reduction in the crime rate outside prisons, but there are certainly a large number of crimes – rape, assault, theft – comitted inside prisons, by inmates and by guards. By imprisoning a person, we greatly increase that person’s risk of becoming a victim of crime.

Any fair discussion of the crime rate should include crimes committed inside prisons. Excluding them leads to to absurd result of lisa’s post: the way to reduce the crime rate is to imprison everyone. Once everyone is in prison, the crime rate will be zero.

19

SG 07.17.08 at 7:34 pm

other countries – ie most – maintain the criminalisation of drugs, and crack down hard on them. Australia, for example, had a heroin drought due to its efforts. But there is nowhere near the same rate of incarceration in those countries. There has to be something extra going on in the US, either separately to or in connection with the drug war, that separates the US from other countries.

20

engels 07.17.08 at 8:04 pm

I guess my point is that it seems weird to frame gross prison population numbers as a harm in itself. Holding people inappropriately in prison is clearly harmful. Incarcerating people appropriately isn’t.

If you read the article linked, which deals in part with the effects of the US’s huge prison population on those imprisoned, on those close to them and on society at large, you might appreciate why a response like this is so stupid.

21

abb1 07.17.08 at 8:14 pm

As I see it, there are two ways to deal with the underclass.

One is to bribe them, give them that ‘social safety net’ they always ask for, that positive incentive to behave. This reduces crime, but it leads to inflation and lack of discipline in the lower orders. They will be slacking off.

The second way, practiced in places like Arab Emirates (and, perhaps, soon in the US) is much, much better. Guest workers! Basically, you rent the underclass. You employ all your citizens and pay them decent wages and you invite starving people from abroad to do all the menial work for next to nothing. As soon as a ‘guest worker’ raises his head and gives you a look – you kick him out of the country, no prisons necessary. In Dubai, I’m told, people reserve tables in fast-food restaurants by leaving their wallets and mobile-phones on them, there is no crime whatsoever. This is the way to go, I tell you.

22

John Emerson 07.17.08 at 8:20 pm

I guess my point is that it seems weird to frame gross prison population numbers as a harm in itself. Holding people inappropriately in prison is clearly harmful. Incarcerating people appropriately isn’t. There are all sorts of arguments about how much is inappropriate for certain crimes. That is the crux of the important issue and where useful focus can be spent.

Gross prison population numbers and trying to analyze them as if they were deeply meaningful divorced from that (as if the government were just selecting them wholly by lottery or something) doesn’t seem all that helpful.

We can always count on Sebastian.

If I read him correctly, there is no problem with putting lots of people in jail as long as they committed lots of crimes. Thus, if half the population were in prison, as long as they were all guilty there would be no problem.

My memory of of Levitt in “Freakonomics” is that he made his argument by combining his actual research with a lot of stuff that he pulled out of the air on the assumption that it was common knowledge. The book seemed more like a methodological tour de force or a journalistic speculation than like a contribtuion to social science.

23

Grand Moff Texan 07.17.08 at 8:20 pm

The US prison system incarcerates people without sufficient control (read: manpower) to keep the peace within the prisons themselves, which feeds organized crime as inmates turn to gangs for self-protection.

Prioritizing the punishment of non-violent drug offenders can (and does) take resources away from protecting the public from violent offenders.

The US imprisons people for crimes that do not carry prison sentences in other developed countries, countries that do not have our crime rate.

For these reasons, we should not assume that incarceration correlates at all with public safety, or that it was meant to. The prison system of the US operates as a psychological protection racket by magnifying threats it cannot remove, props up politicians who throw away the lives of non-violent drug offenders, replaces more overt systems of segregation under the pretext of public safety, and satisfies a deep-seated need in American culture for sadism, rape, and snuff porn. It is completely integrated with the American entertainment industry.

IIRC, the get-tough laws of the 80’s spawned the crack wars of the early 90’s by removing older dealers and leaving the budding trade in the hands of child soldiers. Where did I read recently that large scale arrests in urban areas do not follow surges in the crime rate, they cause them? It came up in a class I was teaching last fall, but I don’t recall where it was.

Oh, well. I guess I mean to say that we should not assume that incarceration is intended to do what we say it is intended to do, nor that arguments from its failure to accomplish its putative goals will get our governments to stop doing counterproductive things. The economies of fear and privatized jails will not be overcome by practical arguments.
.

24

rageahol 07.17.08 at 8:25 pm

any discussion of “appropriateness” of incarceration should take into account the conditions of prisons as they actually exist. i.e. widespread tolerated rape, among numerous other abuses, both active and passive.

fwiw, i think that the rate of incarceration is pretty airtight argument against the punishments it doles out being “appropriate.” and if for no other reason, we should really reduce the prison population simply because it allows the ethnicity-based prison gangs to expand their reach greatly.

25

Grand Moff Texan 07.17.08 at 8:37 pm

By imprisoning a person, we greatly increase that person’s risk of becoming a victim of crime.

In American culture, this is understood to be part of their punishment. The effective sentence for check-forgery, for example, is to be anally raped, something that Americans anticipate with great relish when talking about people they don’t like. So, it satisfies this sadism.

Inmates join organized crime, segregated along ethnic lines. These racial organizations are internally engaged in the drug trade and coordinate with members outside US prisons to run things like prostitution. Prison guards are bribed and/or intimidated to participate/look the other way. Between these organizations there exists an economy of sexual violence, one which not only serves to define which is more powerful (and entitle them to run criminal enterprises), but which can also be staged as a form of membership drive. Aryan Nations and MM have been known to coordinate riots in order to motivate new inmates to join up.

An example would be the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, TX on February 16, 1999. The murderers wore “woodpecker” tatoos that identified them as ex-cons and members of a racist white prison gang. Before dragging Mr. Byrd to his death, he was sexually humiliated.

So, the American need for anal rape as a spectator sport helps to feed the organizations that prey on Americans. Perhaps this is poetic justice?
.

26

Grand Moff Texan 07.17.08 at 8:44 pm

Correction, Mr. Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998. The date I gave previously marked the beginning of the murderers’ trial.
.

27

Grand Moff Texan 07.17.08 at 8:59 pm

Full disclosure: my interest in this issue began with the appearance of this article.
.

28

Aidan Kehoe 07.17.08 at 9:25 pm

I’m not sure how racist the effects of a pro-incarceration policy actually are; this (fascinating, but for other reasons) article makes the point that Baltimore’s easy-on-the-death-penalty, relatively (in US contexts) lenient justice system means that Baltimore’s black inhabitants have to deal with more psychopathic murderers and drug dealers on the streets in their everyday lives, while for the (I imagine white) folks in the suburbs, it’s not an issue. That is, an easy-on-the-sentencing approach makes life worse for more blacks than would a more hardline policy.

29

virgil xenophon 07.17.08 at 10:41 pm

Something not mentioned here yet is the inability to convict the _really bad guys_ (i.e., the more blatant cold-blooded multiple-murders) because of the “no-snitch” ethos coursing it’s way through the black community. This ethos which plays on the “us” v “them”(whitey) emotions is reinforced by technology in that gang members now sit in courtrooms and text msg the names of witness to their “posse” back in the hood even as they speak.
Gang members in the hood then set out to murder all relatives/family of the witnesses. This tactic
has been devastingly effective in supressing witness testimony in both Baltimore
and New Orleans, where I have witnessed it on the nightly news and in the Times-Picayune first hand.

The upshot of these tactics has been to collapse conviction rates down to single digits for murder
“in the hood” while fanning an increasing wave of constant retaliation by murder in tit for tat revenge slayings. All of this leads to further calls for “get tough” tactics as we see going on right now in Chicago with calls for the National Guard as we post here.

30

SG 07.17.08 at 10:53 pm

wow virgil, you witnessed it first hand on the nightly news!!? You are a brave soul, venturing so far from your couch to gain real intelligence on the problems facing other peoples’ posses “in the hood”. word!

31

Righteous Bubba 07.17.08 at 10:54 pm

the “no-snitch” ethos coursing it’s way through the black community

OMG the bad guys don’t tell and don’t want other people to tell. This is unheard of in the history of history and it is cunning of those shifty negroes to have invented it.

32

roy belmont 07.17.08 at 11:01 pm

Famous prisoners and/or outlaws, let’s see…
In no particular order:
Jesus Christ, Paul of Tarsus, Simon Peter, umpteen bloody thousands of martyrs of the faith not even most of them recorded. Ghandi. Mandela. Martin Luther King. Willie Nelson. Waylon. Kepler’s mother. Thomas Paine. Solzhenitzyn. Thoreau. Robin Hood. Geordie in the song. Bobby Sands. Ned Kelly. Mordechai Vanunu. Angela Davis. Eugene V. Debs. Victor Jara. Subcomandante Marcos. Leonard Peltier. George Jackson. Leo Frank. Geronimo. Sitting Bull. Mary Queen of Scots. Anne Boleyn. The mad, disabled, socialist, communist, Roma, and Jews of Nazi Germany.

I could go on, but why?
We must have laws, and thus inevitably must have outlaws.
Just so Sebastian and Aidan and other like-minded citizens feel safer, that’s the main thing.
That their perceptions of criminal danger in the social environment are probably received entirely through a biased and manipulated media whose directors want very much for them to feel that way shouldn’t matter either.
What counts is safety, security, comfortableness.

33

Uncle Kvetch 07.17.08 at 11:04 pm

I have witnessed it on the nightly news and in the Times-Picayune first hand.

And you haven’t been called to testify before Congress yet? Damn that Nancy Pelosi.

“in the hood”

You go on wit’ yo bad self, dawg.

34

L2P 07.17.08 at 11:12 pm

The upshot of these tactics has been to collapse conviction rates down to single digits for murder
“in the hood” while fanning an increasing wave of constant retaliation by murder in tit for tat revenge slayings.

Really? Less than 10% of filed cases result in conviction? Don’t be silly.

You could be thinking of cleared cases (less than 10% of homicides are cleared by law enforcement). Which is blatantly untrue for any jurisdiction. I’ve never seen less than 50%, or anywhere close to it.

35

L2P 07.17.08 at 11:15 pm

The “too many prisoners” argument, however, is much broader than the (certainly overlapping) “we shouldn’t criminalize drugs” argument, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of details given on how, in particular, incarceration rates should be decreased.

Less than you’d think. If you ding the violent crimes and get rid of the “drug related,” you get rid of a lot.

36

lisa 07.17.08 at 11:15 pm

There has to be something extra going on in the US, either separately to or in connection with the drug war, that separates the US from other countries.

Maybe we do more drugs?

37

Jim Harrison 07.17.08 at 11:46 pm

Over and beyond criminalizing drug use, we’ve also criminalized insanity. Many of the people who are in American prisons would have been in asylums back in the 60s. Does anybody know which form of warehousing is cheaper?

38

rageahol 07.17.08 at 11:59 pm

jim harrison:

you misspelled “more humane”

39

noen 07.18.08 at 12:16 am

The extra going on Lisa is that in America we like our drugs the same as we like our sex, nice and dirty. Why do we incarcerate people anyway? As suggested above it’s because we have a sadistic side that gets off on other’s suffering.

The purpose of imprisonment isn’t to reform the individual. It isn’t even for the improvement of society. We don’t give a shit about those things. It’s to punish the motherfuckers.

abb1
Dubai “…is the way to go, I tell you.”

Dubai Detains Foreigners Accused Of Being Gay
Maybe not so much.

40

Witt 07.18.08 at 2:56 am

You could be thinking of cleared cases (less than 10% of homicides are cleared by law enforcement). Which is blatantly untrue for any jurisdiction. I’ve never seen less than 50%, or anywhere close to it.

If this article can be believed, Baltimore clears fewer than 20% of its homicide cases:

As of mid-April in Baltimore, there have been 79 murders, down one from the same time last year, Burns said. Of these, only 15 have been solved, Burns said.

N.b. I am not taking a position on any other contentions made in this thread.

41

Gareth Wilson 07.18.08 at 3:52 am

“The truth is that the criminals live among us as our young fathers, brothers, and sons.”

Something seems off about that. I know little about Bruce Western, but I can confidently predict that neither his father, brother, or son has ever been convicted of a crime punished by imprisonment. Not only that, but they’ve committed very few of those crimes too, and none of the violent subset. So if I can make such an accurate prediction from so little information, where does that leave the “us and them fallacy”?

42

derrida derider 07.18.08 at 4:01 am

“The prison system … satisfies a deep-seated need in American culture for sadism, rape, and snuff porn.”

Absolutely. And it’s those Red State religious conservatives who are the worst offenders (sic) here. They are whited sepulchres, seeing corruption everywhere but within.

43

noen 07.18.08 at 4:09 am

Gareth, wtf? Is there a parallel universe where that makes sense?

44

Gareth Wilson 07.18.08 at 4:34 am

Noen, the whole point of his article is that there _is_ an us and a them, that crime correlates with class and race. So using the word “our” to force us to into empathy with the criminals strikes me as disgenuous. If you never expect any of family to be imprisoned it’s a pretty cheap gimmick to pretend otherwise.

45

virgil xenophon 07.18.08 at 4:49 am

Me and my trusty fifth of Barbancourt five-star rum are beyond long-term psychic damage from barbed insults, but it appears that, like two binary stars, sg and I seem fated to combatively circle each other–if only verbally. 12p should come down to New Orleans, it’s hovered at just around the single digit area ever since Katrina–although granted extreme circumstances such as the destruction of the crime lab, loss of institutional memory in the D.A.’s office etc., due to the effects of Katrina have been contributing factors.

As to “up close and personal” acquaintance with the criminal element, outside of being one of the “perps” myself or one of their victims, I don’t see how much closer one can get than the local news–a damn sight closer than anybody who doesn’t live in N.O., n’ces’t pas? Over and above that fact, I would say that since Katrina
a great many of us–too many– have been unfortunate personal by-standers to far too much crime in general and killings in particular to take any guff from those who are decidedly non-participants in our little social drama down here.

righteousbubba makes the usual ass out of himself
by missing the point entirely about cell-phone technology adding an extra dimension to the crime problem–an extra dimension that has been the subject of much discussion in the Baltimore media, for example, but has seemed to pass right by the keen-eyed and aptly named “bubba.”

BTW, I don’t know how “brave” a soul you are sg, but as long as you are making this personal, (which I never have) I’ll state that I probably risked my life more often in one combat tour in Vietnam (for which I volunteered) than everyone who posts here will in their combined lifetimes (unless they are also combat veterans). And I’ve got lots of those little shiny things they pin on the chest to prove it–so can the sarcastic crap, sports-fans. I’m no braver than the next man–but at least I know first-hand what both real danger and absolute terror are–which, as I read between the lines from the nature of the postings at CT, most here don’t. And I really don’t mean this as a calumny on all others as being recreant in their civic duties, but needless vituperative snarking makes me want to tell sg and uncle kvetch to go pound sand–preferably up each other’s arses…….Now for the “rhum”, and a obviously unrealistic hope posters here will ever avoid the verbal calisthenics they feel make them superior beings. But continuing firing away if you must, unlike some, I don’t feel the need to prove my “bad-self” props to anyone—-dawg(s). (Think I’ll head back to the couch now)

46

Righteous Bubba 07.18.08 at 5:32 am

[...] unrealistic hope posters here will ever avoid the verbal calisthenics they feel make them superior beings [...]
Posted by virgil xenophon

47

lisa 07.18.08 at 5:51 am

“The extra going on Lisa is that in America we like our drugs the same as we like our sex, nice and dirty. Why do we incarcerate people anyway? As suggested above it’s because we have a sadistic side that gets off on other’s suffering.”

My point was really that, if in Australia, they enforce drug laws very punitively and yet have so many fewer people in prison this might be because they have fewer numbers of people committing those crimes.

Anyway, this callousness at the suffering of others or even relishing their suffering is hardly exclusive to America. What I think, from discussions with people on this subject is that somehow Americans imagine people who commit the very worst crimes and then project their fear of these people onto all those in prison–most of whom have not committed such crimes. So the pot dealer is somehow lumped in–in people’s minds–with the child murderer. Prisoners are seen as debased human beings, if they are even seen as human beings. This is a common thing, common to many societies. It has class and race overtones in the U.S. Because of the deep gulfs of class and race in the U.S. it is much easier to deeply despise prisoners because one can put them in a group of people whom one has no sympathy for. In more homogenous or equal societies, this might be more difficult because one may share, on some level, the imaginary prisoner’s social space.

And yet there is a strange fascination with crime and criminals and this love of the fictional criminal but hatred of the actual prisoner.

It’s too complex to put it all down to sadism. There’s so much going on there. I think, judging from the torture of suspected terrorists, that people who are afraid seek scapegoats to torture in order to expunge their fear. So people who fear crime do feel a kind of pleasure in the suffering of prisoners. But again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much going on there.

48

rageahol 07.18.08 at 6:09 am

virgil xenophon:
“Over and above that fact, I would say that since Katrina a great many of us—too many—have been unfortunate personal by-standers to far too much crime in general [...]“

perhaps another factor is that even before katrina NOPD was among the more corrupt police forces in the US. since then, well….

lisa:
perhaps they have fewer people committing those crimes. perhaps the police practices differ, more along the lines of disposal-of-drugs/dont-do-it-again. my limited experience with aussies (via teh cyberwebs) has been that they all smoke massive amounts of marijuana and/or grow it. perhaps theres a netherlands-type phenomenon going on there.

49

SG 07.18.08 at 7:41 am

virgil! Cool your heels, man! no-one is questioning anyone’s bravery, just taking the piss out of your “first-hand” experience. You’ve drunk too much rum! And really, I would think that a hurricane and the flooding of a city would have more effect on clearance rates than would gang tactics. It was a pretty trick of yours not to mention that in the first post.

Lisa, I think you’ll find that heroin use in Australia was a pretty serious affair in the 90s (I recall it was the second- or first-biggest killer of young people for a while). But we have another difference – a much more comprehensive public health response to drug use, and much more effective integration of customs, health and police strategies. There are other avenues for managing drug use in Australia than criminalising it, even though it is a criminal activity.

But it seems pretty clear from everything said about the drug war that a lot of the legal tactics used have little to do with the numbers of drug users, and a lot to do with the criminalisation of communities believed to harbour them.

50

virgil xenophon 07.18.08 at 8:51 am

sg is, to give the proverbial devil his due, on the money in his last para. When one reads the non-American academic literature on alcoholism for example, one finds a frank, open recognition of sociological questions involved which are almost totally absent in American writings on the subject. To wit: The extent to which entire minority groups have been conveniently “blacktopped” by labeling them as hopeless alcoholics genetically. Native Americans (non-Inuit) and Aboriginal Natives in Australia are prime examples–although there are others–The Romanian Gypsy to a lesser extent, for example.

51

virgil xenophon 07.18.08 at 9:03 am

PS: Has anyone ever driven thru, let alone worked on, American Indian reservations? I’d be even more of a hopeless alcoholic than I already am if forced to live under those conditions–a perfect example of the defects of almost pure, top-down paternalistic state socialism–which is the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs has historically run them. Only when Capitalist casinos hove on the scene have the Indian communities become masters of their own fate and dramatically improved their lives on their own hook.

52

minneapolitan 07.18.08 at 11:58 am

I remain unconvinced by the arguments which suggest that there is some essentially American predilection for massive imprisonment. If that were the case, why do we only see this massive uptick in prison populations over the last couple of decades? People in the US were certainly racist in the past, and many of them were probably fairly vicious in their personal cosmologies of crime and punishment, and furthermore capitalists needed a reserve labor force, yet those factors don’t seem to have had the kind of effect on rates and methods of incarceration that people impute to them above.

I think the answer is simpler than what is offered above. People in positions of power have been making conscious, political decisions to increase the rate and length of incarceration, especially for certain categories of offenses. Why have they done this? I don’t know if we can find a root cause, a “Sheriff Zero” as it were, but my reading is that pushing a hard line on drugs and certain other kinds of crime became a stand-in for Red-baiting and race-baiting, two tactics that had previously proven effective vote-getters. I don’t think it necessarily follows from that that the will to incarcerate was always present in US culture. Politicians wanted votes, law enforcement wanted money, TV news wanted viewers and by working in concert, (though not necessarily by conspiring) everyone got what they wanted. One example I’m familiar with is the response to the call for protests of the Intl. Soc. for Animal Genetics in 2000 here in Minneapolis. The police were allocated an extra $1.1 million to deal with the hordes of anarchists who were created out of whole cloth by rightist elements in the media. Downtown Minneapolis was turned into an armed camp. All this was accomplished without significant public backlash, because it fit so well into the discourse around crime of the preceding 20 years. And now the same thing is happening on a much larger scale with the RNC (and to a slightly lesser extent with the DNC in Denver.)

This isn’t mysterious, it’s the concerted effort of certain individuals and groups with interests to advance.

53

J Thomas 07.18.08 at 12:48 pm

“you misspelled “more humane””

No, he didn’t.

54

Dave 07.18.08 at 1:11 pm

@51 and don’t forget the tech-bubble dimension of surveillance and apprehension – budgets for cool gadgets, the ‘CSI effect’ offering visible, ‘scientific’ proof of guilt; an entire entrepreneurial landscape of devices for getting people locked up, and thus for encouraging the authorities to seek to lock people up… ‘Crime-baiting’ in the post-cold-war context makes an awful lot of explanatory sense, for a whole lot of reasons.

55

J Thomas 07.18.08 at 1:21 pm

One reason for more prisons now is that in general we didn’t used to have a chronic labor surplus.

When there aren’t enough people for the jobs available, it doesn’t make sense to lock up some of them and hire others to guard them. You only do that with the ones you need to.

When there are unemployables just lounging around waiting for a chance to cause trouble, then it does make sense to lock up some of them and hire others to guard them.

56

abb1 07.18.08 at 1:57 pm

…and furthermore capitalists needed a reserve labor force…

They had a safety net built by FDR, a good one. It took decades to get rid of most of it.

57

Dreadnaugh 07.18.08 at 2:23 pm

So these communities would be better served by having these people who are currently imprisoned returned to their neighborhoods. Also, conspicuously absent from the argument is the disparity in the sex of those imprisoned. A man are 35 times as likely to go to prison as a woman (completely falsified statistic, but likely correct). Should we conclude that society has entered into a enormous conspiracy to convict men, even when they commit no more crime than women? Could it be that different groups commit differing amounts of crime? No, of course no. We should have a social program to empower men, then they would not commit crime. Men only commit crime because they do not have as much money, power, or opportunities as women. That is the only logical conclusion.

58

Dave 07.18.08 at 2:35 pm

Nah, women only DON’T commit crime because they don’t have enough testosterone to make them stupid enough. Rub-on creams are needed to equalise that situation forthwith.

59

Dan Simon 07.18.08 at 3:01 pm

Tough-on-crime politics disdains the criminology of root causes and traces crime not to poverty and unemployment but to the moral failures of individuals.

This entire thread has an almost surreal quality to it. After more than fifty comments, the actual cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the US hasn’t even been mentioned.

Starting in the mid-1960s, crime rates in the US began to skyrocket, reaching peaks in the early seventies and early eighties. This crime epidemic radically altered life for millions of city-dwellers, making parts of major cities effective no-go zones and introducing high levels of apprehension into ordinary life for people who were previously accustomed to feelings of security and safety. Even the huge drop in crime starting in the early 1990s has only lately begun to bring rates down to a level approaching that of the period preceding this crime explosion.

This change began during a time of remarkable prosperity, when unemployment was low. Government assistance to the poor had expanded dramatically with the the “Great Society” programs of the Johnson administration, and the civil rights movement had greatly improved conditions for racial and ethnic minorities.

On the other hand, this period also saw a dramatic shift from “tough-on-crime politics” to a “root causes” philosophy. The rights of the accused were greatly expanded, police procedures were severely restricted, and sentences and incarceration rates were dramatically reduced. Millions of Americans, observing the subsequent crime wave, drew a natural conclusion–hence the subsequent return to “tough-on-crime politics”, longer sentences and increased incarceration.

One may, of course, disagree with their conclusion. But discussing the recent history of crime and incarceration rates without understanding their origins makes no sense whatsoever.

60

Grand Moff Texan 07.18.08 at 3:38 pm

I remain unconvinced by the arguments which suggest that there is some essentially American predilection for massive imprisonment. If that were the case, why do we only see this massive uptick in prison populations over the last couple of decades?

Lynching went out of style.
.

61

Grand Moff Texan 07.18.08 at 3:42 pm

One may, of course, disagree with their conclusion. But discussing the recent history of crime and incarceration rates without understanding their origins makes no sense whatsoever.

… an understanding you’ve failed to demonstrate in a discussion you seem to have missed. Your analysis, which I could have derived from a Dirty Harry movie, overlooks the fact that this was the period when the largest generation in American history was in its prime crime-committing years. Also, the collapse of industry/creation of massive labor surpluses in this period has already been discussed.

Supporting the failures of get-tough laws with the whiny rhetoric of get-tough laws is kinda missing the point, guy. There’s more to law enforcement than “not being too soft on bad people.”
.

62

Sebastian 07.18.08 at 3:45 pm

“But it seems pretty clear from everything said about the drug war that a lot of the legal tactics used have little to do with the numbers of drug users, and a lot to do with the criminalisation of communities believed to harbour them.”

The interesting thing about this conclusion is that at the beginnings of the drug war, black leaders were worried that underenforcement of the drug laws in minority communities was intentionally allowing drugs to flourish in them.

Which suggests that you just can’t win.

63

Barry 07.18.08 at 3:46 pm

Posted by minneapolitan:

“I remain unconvinced by the arguments which suggest that there is some essentially American predilection for massive imprisonment. If that were the case, why do we only see this massive uptick in prison populations over the last couple of decades? People in the US were certainly racist in the past, and many of them were probably fairly vicious in their personal cosmologies of crime and punishment, and furthermore capitalists needed a reserve labor force, yet those factors don’t seem to have had the kind of effect on rates and methods of incarceration that people impute to them above.”

It’s been mentioned (here? and in the article?) that the War on Crime and the War on Drugs might well be a replacement for the former systems of racial oppression. If you can’t openly Jim Crow people, then set up a system to allow that to happen, in the name of something else.

64

abb1 07.18.08 at 4:34 pm

Government assistance to the poor had expanded dramatically with the the “Great Society” programs of the Johnson administration…

Nonsense, Dan. War on Poverty programs were severely cut by Nixon and then killed by Reagan right at the beginning of his regime. Also, the whole economic model was revamped in the early 80s – cutting wages, benefits, job security. The 60s and the 80s represent two radically different socio-economic models.

65

Dan Simon 07.18.08 at 4:53 pm

Your analysis, which I could have derived from a Dirty Harry movie,

Indeed, you could have. Dirty Harry was released in 1971 and was a huge hit, spawning a flurry of imitators. The only remotely pro-vigilante postwar Hollywood film I can think of that preceded it is High Noon, made twenty years earlier as a political allegory, set in a remote era.

In other words, there’s no need to resort to conspiracy theoretic or quasi-Marxist explanations for the incarceration explosion. Grass-roots political demand, driven by a skyrocketing crime rate and its widely perceived connection with a soft-on-crime justice system, more than suffices.

this was the period when the largest generation in American history was in its prime crime-committing years.

As I said, you don’t have to agree with the American public’s conclusion regarding the cause of the crime wave. No doubt demographics played at least some role, as you suggest.

Also, the collapse of industry/creation of massive labor surpluses in this period has already been discussed.

As I pointed out, crime began rising dramatically during the mid-1960s, when the economy was still strong and unemployment low.

66

Dan Simon 07.18.08 at 4:56 pm

War on Poverty programs were severely cut by Nixon and then killed by Reagan right at the beginning of his regime.

For the umpteenth time, the crime explosion that spurred skyrocketing incarceration rates began in the mid-1960s, peaking in the early seventies and again in the early eighties.

67

bigTom 07.18.08 at 5:31 pm

Against my better judgement I feel compelled to jump in here. One partial factor for the increase in urban crime during the late sixties was that the high expectations from civil rights advances were not meant. This created a sense of us versus them, and also a sense that you won’t be allowed to get ahead even if you make the right moves, so why not just join the dark side. Then I think you have a knock on effect of drug prosecution, -especially against the drugs popular with the urban underclasses. Doesn’t this drive a significant number of people (drug users, and small time dealers) closer to the real criminal element. I mean close, both in a psychological and a relationship sense.

Also, once things reach a certain point, recruitment into gangs is hard to stop. Don’t most young gang members join up, because they feel that if they do, they get protection, and if they don’t they will become victims. Once inside, the pressure to participate in criminal acts is intense. I bet a similar pattern follows for those who go to prison for “victimless crimes”, they almost have to join one of the gangs, and it becomes difficult to escape this relationship once they are released.

68

blah 07.18.08 at 5:36 pm

People in positions of power have been making conscious, political decisions to increase the rate and length of incarceration, especially for certain categories of offenses. Why have they done this? I don’t know if we can find a root cause, a “Sheriff Zero” as it were . . .

Dan Simon is right. It really was a response to rising crime rates in the 60s and 70s. Incarcerating more criminals for longer periods was a popular response because the people wanted the government to do something about rising crime. Tough on crime is an easy vote getter in a period of rising crime.

69

Marc 07.18.08 at 5:50 pm

It’s a mistake to search for a single root cause of the high US incarceration rate. Many of the contributing factors have been brought up in Rashoman-like fashion.

One element differentiating the US is that it has far more geographic mobility than many other nations, and as a consequence the moderating influence of family networks on anti-social behavior has been greatly damped. This was amplified by the explosion of divorce rates in the 1970s and beyond. Much of the reduction in urban crime was actually tied to tactics which amounted to community policing, e.g. treating young people as members of the community whose behavior could be constrained by community peer pressure rather than having them treated as packs of wild animals.

Another is the massive internal migration of blacks from the deep south to northern cities. This accelerated dramatically after the second world war, and the interaction with racist institutions generated a lot of wrenching changes in major cities. Racial covenants – which still can be seen in the deeds of virtually all older homes in the US – had made it illegal for blacks (or Jews) to own or rent property in most places in most cities, concentrating blacks in neighborhoods like Harlem. These were struck down in the 1960s, leading to massive demographic shifts made infinitely worse by racial animosity.

There is also an obvious correlation between crime and the declining fortunes of blue collar workers in the USA. Entire cities had their reason for existing simply vanish – e.g. every single factory shut down. Crime follows that in any country.

One also cannot separate out the role of the mass media in promoting hysteria. There are numerous studies linking fear of crime with exposure to local TV news which emphasized sensational and graphic crimes. Similar fearmongering on new fad drugs (e.g. crack) was also a huge factor. The net result was an atmosphere of panic and dehumanization of the “other”, with predictable consequences in legislative over-reaction. The Republican party also found mass incarceration to be a popular winning political strategy.

One also cannot separate out violent crime from drug criminalization as cleanly as some posters claim. If drugs are illegal and expensive, and addicts are made criminals with very limited job prospects, then one turns a drug problem into a property crime problem.

70

abb1 07.18.08 at 5:51 pm

Mid-60s to mid-70s is a different story, there were obviously non-economic reasons in that period. The war and race riots ended, yet crime/incarceration kept going up.

71

Dreadnaugh 07.18.08 at 5:53 pm

Many comments seem to remove all personal responsibility. As thought the government adjusts incarceration rates in the same manner that the Fed changes interest rates.

Evidently individuals have no say in determining if they commit crime. Well, than it holds that those commentators were also forced into making those comments. Big business again. Adjusting labor markets.

72

Roy Belmont 07.18.08 at 6:46 pm

#51: if forced to live under those conditions—a perfect example of the defects of almost pure, top-down paternalistic state socialism—which is the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs has historically run them
While acknowledging and encouraging your frank empathy I’d like to point to the predating circumstances from which those reservations emerged. Which may have had a pretty significant contribution to subsequent reservation alcoholism. Since it seems to be accepted by the dominant culture as just the way things had to be.
Sort of why they’re on the rez to begin with thing.

dan simon et al. viz. 60’s crime explosion:
Is there a possible connection between the draft pulling disproportionate minority numbers off the streets of America, and the criminal justice system pulling disproportionate minority numbers off the streets of America?
Besides the identical phrasing I mean.
Given they’re both run by The Man.
Toward the upper end of the minority young male alert-and-aware index it seems like you’d find some fairly cynical fellows under those circumstances. Who might not consider servile entry-level employment as an appropriate life path. And who might then turn to extra-legal means to provide themselves and their loved ones with the necessities of daily living. Or following the cultural paradigm, do whatever it took to get the good stuff and devil take the hindmost.

73

abb1 07.18.08 at 6:57 pm

Right, Dreadnaugh. Those guys in the ghettos should just lay down and die to improve your opinion of them.

74

SG 07.18.08 at 7:18 pm

Dan Simon’s Dirty Harry analysis seems to miss the fact that other societies with much more social-welfare oriented systems didn’t experience the same spikes in crime.

minneapolitan’s analysis seems to miss the fact that other societies have also recently been increasing the length of prison terms (it’s been a matter of debate in the Guardian recently, and has been happening in Oz for a while) but don’t have anywhere near the same level of criminalisation of society or of underclasses. It seems strange to say that the phenomenon doesn’t seem to represent an American predilection when it is inherent to America.

Sebastian, I suspect your comment is being facetious, but when attempting to prevent the massive social damage caused by certain drugs, under-policing and over-policing are both serious mistakes, as is any form of policing in the absence of a proper health and welfare framework (specifically, harm reduction). Black communities were right to worry that they would be left with no police support in the 60s, and are right now to worry about being overpoliced. The only solution to the drug problem is the correct level of corruption-free policing, in the context of extensive harm reduction measures.

75

Marc 07.18.08 at 7:38 pm

The drug war presents an obvious example of the government radically adjusting incarceration rates. We adopted a policy of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses. Between 1980 and 2004 there was a thirteen-fold increase in people jailed for drug usage or distribution. The proportion of the population actually using these drugs has been far more stable.

And that is leaving aside the issue of whether the same behavior for the children of affluent whites has the same consequences as it does for the children of poor blacks. It pretty clearly does not.

76

Witt 07.18.08 at 10:22 pm

Marc is making excellent points in #69.

I am intensely curious about whether there is reliable data on police and prosecutorial discretion.

My experience indicates that whether one Becomes A Criminal is correlated with whether you are convicted of a crime — not whether you commit the act that society has criminalized.

As the nonprofit Sentencing Project has illustrated, at every stage in the process — arrest, charges, prosecution, trial, sentencing — where there is room for discretion, it is exercised.

So a young white guy caught DUI in the suburbs may not even have charges filed against him. A young black man who exhibits the same behavior in a different location may be arrested, charged, convicted…and thus made ineligible for a slew of jobs that require a clean driving record.

There is no difference in the crime these two young men committed. The difference is in the impact on life outcomes.

(People who attempt to read this post as an apology for driving under the influence are willfully misguided.)

77

Dan Simon 07.18.08 at 10:55 pm

Dan Simon’s Dirty Harry analysis seems to miss the fact that other societies with much more social-welfare oriented systems didn’t experience the same spikes in crime.

Please don’t misunderstand me–I’m not suggesting that the Great Society welfare programs caused crime to spike in the mid-1960s. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who suggests that. There are those who claim that the particular structure of AFDC had long-term cultural effects that exacerbated and prolonged the crime wave a couple of decades down the road, and there’s some plausibility to that argument. But it’s hard to imagine how it could have contributed in any significant way to the immediate spike that was in fact observed.

Rather, I’m simply arguing that the case for crediting social welfare systems with reducing crime rates (and conversely, blaming crime on their absence) is extremely weak, at least in the US. The massive expansion of welfare in the 1960s was immediately followed by a decades-long period of massively increased crime rates, and its drastic contraction in the mid-1990s occurred early in a decades-long period of sharply declining crime rates, on which it had no noticeable effect.

78

SG 07.19.08 at 12:22 am

Dan, your original comment 59 attempts near its end to suggest that you are merely reporting “the American people”‘s opinion of the cause of high crime rates, but the first paragraph in that comment makes it pretty clear that you view this putative causal relationship as fact. You can’t now say you are not “suggesting that the Great Society welfare programs caused crime to spike” after your sneering first paragraph in comment 59: “Oh woe! I cannot believe people haven’t even discussed the real causes of crime! It’s surreal! Let me tell you! It’s social welfare!”

79

virgil xenophon 07.19.08 at 12:29 am

marc mentions the loss of entire industries as a contributing factor. Little noted for it’s effect on the nature of the labor force is the fact that
between some 5-15% of the population has ADHD/ADD to some degree or another–mostly males. Now, one of the ways such individuals are taught to cope is through heavy routinization of one’s daily routine. Up until the mid-sixties when such individuals were unable to cope and dropped out of H.S., for example, there was a highly routinized job on the factory floor assembly-line waiting, which allowed these individuals to be productive members of society, raise a family, contribute to the community, etc. Huge numbers of such jobs are now gone and replacement jobs with comparable pay require much multi-tasking which is beyond many ADHD types to cope(A manager’s job at the 7-11, for example).

One juvenile-judge in New Orleans has for years screened everyone who comes before him for ADD/ADHD and the published findings demonstrate that some 60% of his offenders demonstrate some degree of the malady. The conclusion “I” draw from this is that the old factory assembly-line system masked such dysfunctions to a large degree and that no small part of the “crime wave” of the last 30-40 years is due directly to the inability of these types to find meaningful employment at a wage that would allow these otherwise normally functioning people to be productive and law-abiding members of society.

80

Dan Simon 07.19.08 at 3:26 am

You can’t now say you are not “suggesting that the Great Society welfare programs caused crime to spike” after your sneering first paragraph in comment 59: “Oh woe! I cannot believe people haven’t even discussed the real causes of crime! It’s surreal! Let me tell you! It’s social welfare!”

Please reread comment 59. It doesn’t say what you appear to want it to say.

To reiterate my main points:

- The current high incarceration rates in the US are the result of tough-on-crime policies instituted by politicians reacting to public demand.

- Public demand for tough-on-crime policies in the US is a result of a roughly twenty-five-year period of sky-high crime rates, from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, and the widespread public perception that one its causes was government softness on crime.

- Throughout, levels of economic inequality, and in particular the degrees of generosity of social welfare programs, have had no discernible effect on gross crime rates.

- Both Marxist explanations of today’s high incarceration rates as ruling class-imposed, and “root causes” explanations of crime as triggered by poverty and inequality, are completely unsupported by the record of the last half-century of American experience with crime.

81

tom f 07.19.08 at 6:16 am

Actually, Dan, perhaps there is a narrative that allows for what you are calling a “Marxist” explanation.

If we merely see a connection between the great crime wave in urban, black America and the preceding great Northern migration of black Americans, we then see that the social breakdown did have causes that were overdetermined by a capitalist order.

White America was protected from the social strains of capitalist development by having previously accrued more social capital and a more priveledged social status (that’s an understatement, of course). Furthermore, this strain was tempered by White America’s more gradual exposure to an urban, capitalist order. Finally, white America also recieved a greater degree of govenrment assistance in the post-war boom.

To say that poorer, recently southern black Americans -who felt the “shock therapy” of captitalist urbanization with a relative deficit of social and economic wealth- were ameliorated by early 60’s welfare is not to establish that such intervention was sufficient or effective in empowering and securing families and individuals.

Meanwhile, once a diffuse social rot had taken hold, it could not be addressed other than by a reactionary and counterproductive response from the hegemonic culture: poor blacks could not organize effectively in such a massive, patchwork polity as the United States; the capitalist political economy ensured that the perogative of social welfare was not to compete with the perogative of capital; and the legacy (too generous a term) of racism would apply old habits of race relationships to a new situation.

82

abb1 07.19.08 at 6:48 am

Right, Dan. The reasons why people start breaking the law en masse are complete mystery (something in the water – or in their genes, perhaps?) and it’s the public who is responsible for high incarceration rates, Hitler’s willing executioners. Why do you hate America?

83

SG 07.19.08 at 9:03 am

I’m still dubious about your intentions Dan. I think you are using the opinion of “the American public” to justify your view that “root causes” don’t hold. i.e. all crime is just because some people are bastards.

Other countries have also experienced this “tough on crime” backlash, yet their incarceration rates are nowhere near the same. So even if your explanation holds water, it still doesn’t explain the particular ferocity of the US response.

84

J Thomas 07.19.08 at 1:17 pm

I see an argument here about root causes.

The question is why are more people in prison in America compared to other places. And the obvious answer is that America is different. American exceptionalism can surely explain this.

Sure, other places have had tough-on-crime waves, and we took it farther. Do we need an explanation for this? It’s a different situation. Different populations, different economies, different politicians.

So OK, in the 1950’s we mechanised agriculture in the american south. More “efficient”. A whole lot of sharecroppers were pushed off the land and wound up in northern cities. Kind of like the british enclosures a lot earlier, but on a much larger scale. It was a social catastrophe and we set up Welfare to deal with it.

Should we attribute the crime to the original social catastrophe or to the welfare system? Should we attribute it to the economy that did not deal well with a surplus of unskilled labor? To the individual choices of millions of people?

I don’t much like that last choice. It’s a good one when you’re talking to an individual person about his choices. He can be more creative about finding a good solution, if he tries harder he can stay out of jail. But that might be a zero-sum thing. When a bunch of kids play musical-chairs, each kid who gets hyped up about better ways to get a seat might have a better chance personally. But there’s still going to be a seat missing for somebody.

When there aren’t enough decent jobs a lot of people are going to try to get by without decent jobs. They will have legal troubles of one sort or another. It’s possible we have a social problem that would give us a lot of crime even if the jobs were available. If we were to develop a labor shortage we could find out whether that’s so.

What can we do about this? As individuals, each of us could try to start a small business in his spare time, which might eventually hire an employee. If we had even thirty million new successful small businesses it could make a big dent in the problem. It’s your personal responsibility to create a business that will aid your retirement and also hire somebody who would otherwise be unemployed for a year and then drop out of the job market. Until you create a job for somebody else you are part of the problem. ;)

Here’s another alternative — we have used the military in a variety of ways to deal with social problems. Integrating the military did a lot to alleviate racism, a whole lot of people found out they could work with blacks on a theoretically equal level and have it work out. The military is also a testbed to deal with issues of sexual discrimination and sexual harrassment, and we’re starting to use it to figure out how to deal with homosexual issues. I would suggest we use the army to deal with welfare. Eliminate Welfare programs completely, but require the army to accept every citizen who volunteers. If you can’t get by without joining the army, then you have to join the army. The military could feed, house, clothe, educate, and police large groups of people a lot cheaper than an army of social workers and bureaucrats can. The army can come up with things for them to do. Children of soldiers would have to be given all the skills they would later need if they became soldiers. And every time somebody’s enlistment runs out he can look for a civilian job and maybe get one, and go back to the military if he can’t.

Our generals would howl at the idea they were supposed to deal with the whole country’s unemployables, the recent divorcees with babies, the pregnant runaways with nowhere to go, etc. But they’d do it. Give them most of the social-welfare budget and they’d do it with no nonsense. And they could do it with far fewer soldiers in cheaper military prisons than we now have with civilians.

Don’t just argue about whose fault it is. Find solutions.

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sg 07.19.08 at 1:31 pm

j thomas, your argument doesn’t seem to invoke any exceptionalism. crime rates were going up across the english speaking world in the 60s and 70s, so why the US should have a unique explanation for this I don’t know. The required unique explanation is why the US has to imprison so many more people than other countries do/did.

I’m also confused by this welfare explanation. It’s a typical conservative contradiction. On the one hand, welfare caused America’s crime problems. On the other hand, America is different to (and better than) Europe because it has less welfare! But Europe has lower crime and lower imprisonment rates. So where’s the explanation for this contradiction?

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sg 07.19.08 at 1:31 pm

and how is universal-conscription-on-request not the ultimate form of paternalistic welfare?

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jj 07.19.08 at 2:36 pm

I think that what he, in his conservative nostalgia for bygone tradition, is getting at is that prior to the Second World War, and the world-wide depression which preceded it, universal conscription was the safety net of choice among most Western states. In fact, shedding surplus labor was the strategy which made modern capitalism possible.

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Dan Simon 07.19.08 at 3:16 pm

I’m still dubious about your intentions Dan.

Funny you should say that. Throughout this long discussion, I’ve been extremely careful not to question anyone’s motives for proposing empirically indefensible (not to mention laughably incoherent), ideologically loaded hypotheses regarding crime and incarceration rates. I will continue that practice, and simply answer that descending into ad hominem imputations of dark intentions to your interlocutor is a sure sign that you find his arguments uncomfortably effective at shredding your position.

I think you are using the opinion of “the American public” to justify your view that “root causes” don’t hold. i.e. all crime is just because some people are bastards.

You’ve conflated two of my arguments. “The opinion of ‘the American public'” was what caused high incarceration rates–they wanted tough-on-crime policies because they were appalled at the high crime rates they were experiencing. My claim that the common “root causes” arguments don’t hold is based on the observation that the severity of the various supposed root causes is a spectacularly poor predictor of crime rates.

As for the thesis that “all crime is just because some people are bastards”, I would have thought that to be tautological. The question here is whether people become criminal bastards because of influences that are conceivably addressable by public policy, such as (relative or absolute) family income, availability of health care, and so on, or because of influences that are beyond addressing this way, such as congenital personality, family upbringing, and the like. In the latter case, we must fall back on cruder methods, such as deterrence through punishment, that treat only the symptoms, rather than the causes.

Other countries have also experienced this “tough on crime” backlash, yet their incarceration rates are nowhere near the same. So even if your explanation holds water, it still doesn’t explain the particular ferocity of the US response.

There’s no question that America is a relatively violent society in general. My understanding is that even today, when the crime wave of the sixties through the nineties has almost entirely abated, homicide rates in the US still dwarf those in most countries. Hence it’s not surprising that America’s attempts to suppress criminal behavior require more “ferocity” than those of other countries. I don’t see, though, why this American exceptionalism does anything to mitigate the extremely poor historical correlation between various claimed “root causes” and actual crime rates.

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sg 07.19.08 at 3:19 pm

but isn’t that contradictory? The US had conscription in the 60s and 70s, and a war. The late 60s were also the only time in history (I think, don’t quote me) that Australia had conscription. Yet crime was rising in both countries. We could just as easily argue that a war of choice supported by conscription was the cause of the rise in crime rates (and make some spurious claims about heroin coming back with returning soldiers to strengthen our point). Why should we choose the “Great Society Welfare” explanation?

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sg 07.19.08 at 3:28 pm

dan, it’s not ad hominem to suggest that your argument is a cloak for a particular view of society. Now you’ve come out and clearly admitted it, that you think that the “root causes” are not explanatory of crime, which is what I originally accused you of trying to say. Some Ad hominem.

Your last paragraph just talks around the question. Why is US society “relatively violent”, such that it needs this extra incarceration? And is the ferocity of the response working?

The whole issue is moot, of course, if it should turn out to be the case that the ferocious response is not, in fact, incarcerating the people mainly responsible for America’s exceptional rate of murder and theft, but is actually preferentially incarcerating a bunch of petty- or non-criminal individuals of a certain race. In that case, your “American public” argument could easily be turned around to suggest that the American public don’t care about crime per se, but about incarceration rates as a symbol of a society-wide attack on black people. Unless you believe that 60% of uneducated American black men are criminals, you have to explain this.

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J Thomas 07.19.08 at 3:43 pm

SG, yes, I agree. What’s exceptional about the USA is the *amount* of increase in crime, and the *amount* of extra imprisonment in reaction. Other nations did less of those.

I don’t say that welfare caused the increased crime. Welfare was a response to a giant social problem — the disruption of the sharecropper system in the US south. However bad it was before, suddenly dumping a bunch of poor, poorly-educated farmers into cities was not good. Welfare did not handle that problem perfectly. It came because our existing methods to handle problems like that were completely inadequate. Saying that welfare caused the crime is kind of like saying police cause the crime. But with less truth.

Conscription-on-request is not exactly conscription, and it certainly would not be universal. If you don’t want to volunteer and you have some way to get by, then don’t volunteer.

Yes, it would be quite paternalistic. I’m not the kind of conservative who says that everything except free enterprise is bad.

You point out the problems that attitude runs into. Free enterprise by definition can’t fail, if *you* fail to do well it’s your own responsibility and your own problem. When you wind up homeless there’s no private property you particularly have permission to be on so you hang out until the police find something to arrest you for, and then the government has to build a jail to put you into. All this could be done more efficiently with private jails and private police and private courts, but at some point you have to ask what kind of efficiency we want. A private company might manage to provide work that you can do in their jail that more than pays the cost of imprisoning you. And then the next step would be to invite people to sign up for sentences in the jail, where they get food and shelter and some spending money. Like my army suggestion but privatized. I prefer the army. They have a mission beyond maximising profits, and so given custody of a lot of people they are likely to do better by them and by society.

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abb1 07.19.08 at 3:51 pm

Yeah, Dan, seriously,

The opinion of ‘the American public’” was what caused high incarceration rates—they wanted tough-on-crime policies because they were appalled at the high crime rates they were experiencing.

why do you hate America? Your opinion of your neighbors South of the border seems to be on par with Grand Moff Texan’s or even worse.

They don’t want low crime, they prefer “tough-on-crime”? Sadomasochistic evil bastards indeed.

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sg 07.19.08 at 4:24 pm

so j thomas are you saying that America’s crime increase (and the subsequent “requirement” for higher incarceration rates) represented a lack of welfare? That more welfare could have solved the problem?

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Dan Simon 07.19.08 at 4:30 pm

why do you hate America?

But I don’t hate America–certainly not the way you hate Jews, anyway.

(I won’t respond to the rest of Abb1’s comments because they’re so confused and incoherent that I can’t even find anything in them that merits a response.)

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abb1 07.19.08 at 4:47 pm

Um, Dan, but it certainly does seem that you hate America. Maybe not as much as you imagine I hate Jews, but nevertheless.

You make it sound as if the American public was given the choice of this quasi-fascist suppression of the underclass vs. a social-democratic alternative – and they have consistently chosen the fascist methods. If that is true (though I admit I somehow missed that election), then the American public really does deserve plenty of contempt.

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tom f 07.19.08 at 4:59 pm

Dan,

I still haven’t seen your critique of any “root causes”. You simply say: crime increased, then the American public wanted incarceration as a solution. You have not refuted that a)crime may have increased due to causes that are beyond personality and family culture or that b) mass incarceration, as a response, itself has causes beyond the transparent statement that “the American public wanted it”.

Which is fine. Every argument would entail plenty of assumptions and lot of unknowables. But what is then curious are your brash statements that such “root causes” talk is “laughably incoherent”, “empricially indefensible”, or “ideologically loaded”. This implies that you can do better, but you haven’t.

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J Thomas 07.19.08 at 5:59 pm

so j thomas are you saying that America’s crime increase (and the subsequent “requirement” for higher incarceration rates) represented a lack of welfare? That more welfare could have solved the problem?

I don’t know. I think that if we had somehow found a lot of well-paying jobs for the displaced people it would have helped a whole lot. I think the welfare system we set up helped a whole lot compared to what we would have had without it.

I don’t know whether there was a way to “solve the problem”. If we could have slowed the displacement a lot that might have given us a problem we could solve. But it would have left a lot more people stuck in the sharecropping problem, which was not a good thing either — just one othat in retrospect looks fairly stable. I don’t like that solution.

Given a choice between an evil system that maintains itself while you slowly shut it down, and a runaway evil system that’s out of control, which is better? Well, as far as I know nobody felt like they could make that choice. Everybody who perhaps could have chosen, let things happen by default instead. We got a horrible mess that Welfare palliated. Would something else have been better? I don’t claim it would have been. Maybe ethically worse and functionally better? But maybe we could have done the ethically worse thing and gotten worse results to boot.

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sg 07.19.08 at 6:43 pm

maybe tariff reduction and agricultural reform?

I’d be interested to see your claim that all this stuff is caused by the destruction of sharecropping. Show me!

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J Thomas 07.19.08 at 10:59 pm

SG, I do not claim that all our problems came from that. But well into the 1950’s we had a large rural black population in the south, poorly educated and they “knew their place”. I don’t regard that situation as a good thing. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, in a fairly short time by population-shift standards, a whole lot of them wound up in yankee cities. In the short run we didn’t have jobs for them anywhere, but that’s where they wound up.

Would it be surprising if we got a crime problem from that? I don’t blame the displaced people, or the yankee police, or the welfare system, or anybody in particular. But get a whole lot of poor people displaced and their customs disrupted, and crime is a likely outcome.

The mechanization of southern agriculture had some unintended consequences.

Now I want to go way beyond the data. If you take an oppressed people who’ve spent generations with no law except the one that held them down, isn’t it likely you’ll get some who really *enjoy* getting away with stuff? You do something that hurts the enemy and helps you and they hang the wrong man for it, now that’s winning. The christians say to forgive the oppressors, but there are going to be some who want to find out whether they have what it takes to hit back and get away with it. We had some of that in occupied europe within living memory, and weren’t there some problems adjusting afterward? And that was only for a few years.

Take a bunch of people from an environment with truly poisonous race relations, and dump them somewhere the controls are far less and where there aren’t many opportunities for gainful work — would it be surprising if there were problems? Again I’m not blaming the oppressed people or the yankee police, and not the southerners who finally got to have their tractors and such. We had a great big problem and with some technological change it shifted form.

Race relations is one of the things the USA is exceptional for. We have an uncommon race-relations problem, and to an uncommon degree.

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Dan Simon 07.19.08 at 11:43 pm

Why is US society “relatively violent”, such that it needs this extra incarceration?

Not sure, really. I have some guesses, but I strongly suspect that lots of different factors are involved. Why do you ask?

And is the ferocity of the response working?

Proving such causations is extraordinarily difficult, of course. But at least those who believe it’s working have a leg to stand on, given that a reduction in incarceration rates in the 1950s and 1960s was soon followed by an explosion in crime, and that a sharp increase in incarceration rates during the 1990s corresponded with a significant reduction in crime rates.

Contrast that with the hypothesis that increasing social welfare programs reduces crime…

your “American public” argument could easily be turned around to suggest that the American public don’t care about crime per se, but about incarceration rates as a symbol of a society-wide attack on black people.

Oy, again with the motivations…

Look, there’s no question that people like me who claim to be in favor of reducing crime are actually all genocidal racists, just as there’s no question that people like you who claim to be in favor of increased social welfare programs are all Islamist terrorists. But it’s extremely impolite to keep on harping on everyone’s not-too-secret motivations, so if you can’t at least pretend that we’re both people of good faith who mean what we say, then there’s really no point in discussing this any further.

Unless you believe that 60% of uneducated American black men are criminals, you have to explain this.

I’m not sure what you’re questioning here. The statistics? I have no idea whether they’re correct or not. The validity of criminal convictions? My impression is that if anything, the courts bend over backwards in the direction of avoiding false convictions, often at the expense of freeing a great many many guilty people.

Or is it the legitimacy of the laws themselves? I know, for example, that many people are of the opinion that drug laws are some kind of vendetta against poor people. Those who believe that are invariably reasonably comfortably-off people who live far away from the poor neighborhoods devastated by drug use and its accompanying crime, violence and disruption. Needless to say, I have little sympathy for that point of view.

Or perhaps you’re just questioning whether 60 percent of “uneducated” (what does that mean? What percentage of the total is that?) males could possibly be criminals. All I can say is that I have absolutely no doubt that there are circumstances under which, say, 20 percent of the males–let alone the young, uneducated ones–in any community, however affluent and of whatever racial composition–would end up as criminals.

For example, just deprive the community of any effective law enforcement for a few decades, and watch what happens…

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Dan Simon 07.19.08 at 11:50 pm

You make it sound as if the American public was given the choice of this quasi-fascist suppression of the underclass vs. a social-democratic alternative – and they have consistently chosen the fascist methods.

Short answer: tough government action against a worsening crime problem isn’t “quasi-fascist suppression of the underclass”, and “a social-democratic alternative” does nothing to reduce crime. For more details, just reread my responses to SG. (You two seem to share the same basic view, except that he has the intelligence and seriousness to attempt to argue for it, rather than simply parroting puerile slogans from past Party rallies.)

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Dan Simon 07.20.08 at 12:48 am

You have not refuted that a)crime may have increased due to causes that are beyond personality and family culture or that b) mass incarceration, as a response, itself has causes beyond the transparent statement that “the American public wanted it”.

I’m certainly open to explanations for the crime increase of the 1960s that go “beyond personality and family culture”. Indeed, I’ve already noted that demographics likely played some role. And let’s not forget what I consider the key factor: the weakening of the criminal justice system during the 1950s and 1960s. What I reject as absurd is the claim that poverty of lack of social welfare programs are significant culprits, given that they correlate so poorly with increases in the crime rate.

As for the cause of the high incarceration rate, I’d have thought that “the public wanted it very much, so the politicians caused it to happen,” would be explanation enough. What more needs to be explained?

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tom f 07.20.08 at 1:42 am

Dan

“What I reject as absurd is the claim that poverty of lack of social welfare programs are significant culprits, given that they correlate so poorly with increases in the crime rate.”

Logically, the lack of something can’t be a cause within a system unless that system was habituated to that something. So no one could logically argue that lack of welfare caused crime unless such a statement was shorthand for: welfare, such as it existed, was insufficient to ameliorate the cause of crime.

So we still have the hypothesis: the ameliorating factor (welfare) did not overcome the aggravating factor (social disclocation, unemployment, racism, & poverty), even as welfare increased. We can still speculate that crime would have been worse without the welfare.

“As for the cause of the high incarceration rate, I’d have thought that ‘the public wanted it very much, so the politicians caused it to happen,’ would be explanation enough. What more needs to be explained?”

If there were alternative reactions, we would have to explain why they were not taken. If there were no alternative reactions, we would have to inspect the historical reason for this case. In other words, public desires themselves have causes.

Secondly, as noted several times, we would also want to explain the magnitude of the increase in incarceration.

We all assume that, society being astoundingly complex, no actions result automatically from preexisting conditions. There is no law that states “increase in crime leads to public call for increase in incarceration”.

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J Thomas 07.20.08 at 2:19 am

There is no law that states “increase in crime leads to public call for increase in incarceration”.

There can be rules of thumb like that, though. Like, I’m pretty clear that increasing violent crime leads to calls in blue-state cities for an increase in gun control, while in red-state cities it leads to calls for increased punishment.

The obvious (though likely useless) compromise is increase in prison terms for those who commit crimes with guns.

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Dan Simon 07.20.08 at 4:06 am

So we still have the hypothesis: the ameliorating factor (welfare) did not overcome the aggravating factor (social disclocation, unemployment, racism, & poverty), even as welfare increased. We can still speculate that crime would have been worse without the welfare.

…Except that the welfare reform of 1996 did no more to slow the rapid drop in crime during that decade than the Great Society welfare programs did to slow the subsequent rise in crime. Yes, you can always hypothesize that your factor of choice miraculously counteracted some trend that was about to show up at the exact same moment, and therefore was of paramount value. But at that point, you’re basing your hypotheses on faith, not parsimony.

There is no law that states “increase in crime leads to public call for increase in incarceration”.

True enough. Does it seem puzzling to you that it would? Whether or not you agree with it, I’d expect you to acknowledge that it’s a widespread belief that incarceration reduces crime. Surely there’s no need for elaborate theories, then, to explain how increased crime would lead to public calls for increased incarceration?

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Roy Belmont 07.20.08 at 4:13 am

Dan Simon, you keep talking about the American public and what it wants or wanted like it’s some kind of autonomous entity with naturally arising wants that should be respected, the laws simply reflecting that.

But when the 2006 elections delivered the demands of the people for an end to the Iraq war to the Congress, what happened?
That moment, mostly a result of the internet freeing people from corporate media dependence, signaled an end to the period of mass media coercion and manipulation that began in the late 1950’s and hit its stride in the 60’s. Though there’s still a lot of people stuck on that corporate mammary.

That more infantile and still majority part of the American public mostly only wants things that it’s coerced or seduced into wanting. Things it hears about.
Crime doesn’t do that, mediated crime does. Most people aren’t experiencing crime personally. The perception of crime is what’s operative. Where does that perception of crime come from?

People are upset about crime because the media tells them about it and shows them so much of it, because it’s exciting and excitement delivers viewers to the sponsors.
They’re moved to react against the images they’re fed, not crime itself.
Witness the sorceress Nancy Grace.

Until and unless they get online the American public’s only communicating with itself through the media. Which could have been a good tool for awareness if it had been unbiased and accurate and universal in its coverage. And appropriate in its emphasis.
You can’t possibly believe that was ever the case, can you?

The American public is hundreds of millions of people. But in corporate media they’re seeing their social environment through a few tiny apertures whose imagery is tightly controlled and nowhere anything like an accurate depiction of where they are in the world, and what’s happening around and to them.

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Roy Belmont 07.20.08 at 4:15 am

And novakant, The Wire.
I did, got hooked, submerged, uplifted, enlightened, moved. Thanks for the tip. Best tv I ever watched.
Try it, Dan Simon, it’s all there.

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abb1 07.20.08 at 8:07 am

…Short answer: tough government action against a worsening crime problem isn’t “quasi-fascist suppression of the underclass”…

Dan, what is the meaning of this phrase? It says nothing about the issue at hand and a lot about you. “Tough action” is a nice euphemism for incarcerating more people than Stalin’s GULAG, while maintaining inhuman conditions inside the prison. Much worse, in fact, than the conditions inside the GULAG, if what I see in PBS documentaries has any truth to it.

And then take your phrase “worsening crime problem” – no matter how you read it, it doesn’t amount to a description of a “problem” as such. Something worsening is typically a symptom of a problem. Describing it as “problem” that requires “response” is either ignorance or demagoguery.

What I find fascinating in your case is that while your typical commentary carries all the hallmarks of professional demagoguery, the fact that you’re posting it in obscure comment threads is a clear indication that you’re merely an ignorant fool. You have talent Dan Simon, please bury it.

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sg 07.20.08 at 10:30 am

Dan,
I wasn’t questioning your motives. I was merely pointing out that the American Public (of whom you are not representative, nor should you assume to be) may have wanted these high incarceration rates for reasons other than fear of crime. This would be consistent with the argument (not necessarily put by me) that “tough on crime” laws increased alongside the growth in apparent equality between blacks and whites. It would also be consistent with the apparent focus in implementation of these laws on black communities.

You yourself posit a motive for the great unwashed (they are scared of crime and got sick of light sentences). Why can’t I suggest an alternative motive?

I presented the 60% statistic because it’s in the main post. At the point where your society is incarcerating people at this rate, something beyond mere “tough on crime” laws is required. Either 60% of your youth is criminal, and you have to look at the root causes of that; or your laws are designed to persecute a minority rather than catch criminals. And you can’t tell me that soft sentencing alone is the cause of that 60% crime wave, since the US has much tougher sentencing than, say, Australia (and the death penalty) but Australia’s crime rates are much lower than the US’s. Your incarceration explanation might be true, but if so you would expect Australia, Canada and the UK to be unlivable.

I am interested in American’s explanations of why America is relatively violent. It is a common trope amongst gun nuts, but it isn’t born out by America’s history, as far as I can tell. Racist, yes. Violent, not so much.

Lastly, regarding your little “elite inner-city liberal” jibe (very original). I happen to support softer sentencing and welfare alternatives to crime, and I happen to agree with the general view of US drug laws. I have worked in drug and alcohol research for 10 years, and I lived only in suburbs devastated by drug use and crime. I have had colleagues die of heroin overdoses. I am not particularly sympathetic to that jibe, and I think it’s a cheap attempt at a particularly juvenile and nasty form of ad hominem, best reserved for the pages of conservative tabloid media.

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sg 07.20.08 at 10:43 am

also, Dan, your theory of root causes vs. incarceration rates has to pass another very simple test. Why don’t you commit crime? why didn’t you when you were young, and knew that you weren’t likely to get caught or go to prison because the govt was “soft”? If you were good enough to make the decision, why assume no-one else can? What is the missing factor in their upbringing or their worldview that makes you a better person than them?

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Barry 07.20.08 at 12:10 pm

Dan: “The massive expansion of welfare in the 1960s was immediately followed by a decades-long period of massively increased crime rates, and its drastic contraction in the mid-1990s occurred early in a decades-long period of sharply declining crime rates, on which it had no noticeable effect.”

Dan, first, you’re giving welfare not only a strong negative effect, but an immediate strong negative effect.

I odn’t have the cites, but IIRC the single strongest (and it’s strong) influence on crime rates is the percentage of the population which is male and aged 15-25.

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J Thomas 07.20.08 at 12:29 pm

Why don’t you commit crime? why didn’t you when you were young, and knew that you weren’t likely to get caught or go to prison because the govt was “soft”?

This argument might have a good effect, it might get one’s debate partner to stop and think.

But it’s an inverted form of “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”.

People aren’t all the same, and also some of us are luckier than others. In a game of musical chairs, it isn’t tremendously useful to argue about why one person got a seat when another did not. Maybe he was just in the right place at the right time. Maybe he was better at grabbing a seat. But the game is designed so there will be losers.

Do we have something like that? If we have a labor surplus, there have to be losers who can’t get legitimate jobs. Many of them will break laws, they will become drug dealers or whatever else because they lack better opportunities. And if it wasn’t them it would be somebody else. And over time they will accept the idea that going to jail is just an occupational hazard of being chronicly unemployed. If you have the qualifications to get into the army during wartime you might be killed or maimed. If you have to take whatever opportunities arise you might spend some jailtime. Just something you have to accept.

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sg 07.20.08 at 5:54 pm

exactly j thomas, there is some other factor besides knowledge of low or high incarceration rates which explains crime. Why is Dan Simon better than everyone else? Maybe he’s lucky, maybe he’s wealthy, but there’s a reason.

Dan, you also haven’t given an explanation for why incarceration rates were lowered in the 60s. Was it, perchance, in response to (peoples’ response to) low crime rates? If so, what made those crime rates go down in the 60s and up later? If incarceration rates didn’t drop in response to crime, then why should we believe your theory that they increased in response to (peoples’ response to) high crime in the 90s?

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Dan Simon 07.20.08 at 6:59 pm

the American Public (of whom you are not representative, nor should you assume to be)..the great unwashed…

Wow–the snobbish disdain fairly drips from your postings. Well, I’ll thank you to leave me out of it–I do not consider the American Public to be contemptibly inferior to either of us, as you apparently do.

It would also be consistent with the apparent focus in implementation of these laws on black communities.

Really? Do you have any evidence to back that up? My impression is that black communities generally have (at least until recently) been denied the benefit of the kind of assiduous law enforcement that’s the norm in white suburbs. A comparison of crime report/case resolution rates for different neighborhoods should answer this question, although I don’t know where to find those.

Either 60% of your youth is criminal, and you have to look at the root causes of that; or your laws are designed to persecute a minority rather than catch criminals.

I believe the figure was 60 percent of uneducated youth. If that means, say, adults without a high school diploma, then it wouldn’t surprise me if the figure for uneducated white youth is also very high (although perhaps not 60 percent).

And you can’t tell me that soft sentencing alone is the cause of that 60% crime wave

I don’t know if I can’t, but I haven’t, and I certainly won’t. I’ve already made it clear that I suspect multiple causes, of which soft sentencing was only one. However, the latter was by far the most easily addressable via public policy. (Culling excess young males from the population, for example, wasn’t likely to fly as a strategy.)

I am interested in American’s explanations of why America is relatively violent.

Sorry–you’ll have to ask an American. As a foreigner, though, I do subjectively detect a disturbing violent streak in American culture–as well as the whole gun fetish thing, which also creeps me out a bit.

I am not particularly sympathetic to that jibe, and I think it’s a cheap attempt at a particularly juvenile and nasty form of ad hominem, best reserved for the pages of conservative tabloid media.

Fair enough–I don’t really understand why you hold the positions you do, under those circumstances, but I’ll accept them as sincere.

Why don’t you commit crime?

Hard to say–I can think of multiple possible explanations. I’m a generally risk-averse person by nature. My parents taught their children, both directly and by example, to follow society’s rules to the letter. As a smaller-than-average child, I experienced violence and rule-breaking overwhelmingly from the victim’s end. No doubt there are other factors as well. But I don’t recall my or my family’s economic prospects ever entering into my thinking, although the thought of getting arrested certainly has, in moments of idle imagining.

I also know a couple of people who have committed crimes, and I’m quite confident that economic desperation didn’t drive them. On the contrary, if anything, it was the other way around–their crimes had a serious negative impact on their economic circumstances. As they say, crime doesn’t pay.

Now allow me, if I may, to turn the question around: do you avoid crime (assuming you do) because of your economic condition? Does fear of arrest and conviction play no part in your thinking? What about those you know who have committed crimes? Are they driven by economic need, or by other factors?

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Dan Simon 07.20.08 at 7:08 pm

Dan, you also haven’t given an explanation for why incarceration rates were lowered in the 60s.

No doubt low postwar crime rates played a major role, lulling people into believing that preventing crime was no longer a priority. Advocates of milder punishments, broader rights for the accused, and so on thus had a receptive public audience, and met little political resistance until crime began skyrocketing.

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Dan Simon 07.20.08 at 7:11 pm

I’d add that something similar is happening today: as crime rates have fallen, advocates of undermining the criminal justice system’s deterrent effect have gained more favorable attention, and meet with less resistance from the public than they did in the not-too-distant past. So swings the pendulum…

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sg 07.20.08 at 7:15 pm

Dan, I am sneering at your view of the “great unwashed”, since your argument that low incarceration rates do not deter crime relies on the assumption that you, yourself are different, somehow, to the majority of the population who are in their turn deterred by these things. You clearly don’t consider yourself the same as the majority of the population, or you would be out robbing houses due to the low deterrent effect of the laws, if not now then when you were young and the laws were soft.

You have elaborated on this, to suggest that your upbringing protected you. My upbringing did too, but not in the way you might think. My family are poor lower middle class British, my Father a typesetter and my Mother unemployed. For the 10 years before his retirement my Father was on welfare. We lived in relatively poor suburbs in ordinary towns, though most of my childhood was (fortunately) in the countryside. As a consequence, my brother fell into a criminal subculture at the age of about 10, and was taken from us by the State at about 13. I was younger, too young to be following him around, and seeing the trouble it caused us and him I didn’t follow. Also interestingly my brother intervened to stop me associating with people like his peers – he would tell my parents if I did. So I got an object lesson in how crime doesn’t pay at about the age when I would have started, had I followed in my brother’s footsteps. I was in essence protected by an immediate object lesson.

So I do think that imprisonment works, but only under very strict conditions, and I think that incarceration rates follow crime rates. If you look at the crime rates of the 50s, they are actually historically exceptional (since about 1925 US murder rates have been at about 1990 levels, but for 10 years in the 50s). Those 10 years in the 50s correspond with a period with an unusually low number of young men, particularly working class young men (due to the war), and full employment which began to wind down in the 60s. They were exceptional, and it may be the case that the decision to follow more gentle criminal justice practice in the 60s (if indeed that is what happened – I doubt it) was a response to a belief that the post-war era would be crime free.

As for my work and living experiences and how they inform my view of criminal justice – most modern crime is drug-related, and the most effective way of preventing drug-related crime is drug treatment and welfare. Sadly the US is yet to learn that lesson, and is paying the price.

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sg 07.20.08 at 7:19 pm

Dan are you arguing for a predator-prey model of crime and incarceraton, with prison the predator and criminals the prey? Or do the crime rates vary under their own dynamic and incarceration rates are set by our response to that, with our response being only partially successful? You seem to be arguing the former, but only within the US context since you have yet to explain why countries with lower incarceration rates historically have had lower crime rates.

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abb1 07.20.08 at 7:59 pm

…lulling people into believing that preventing crime was no longer a priority…

Dan, this already sounds a lot like a parody, but just to make it a bit funnier, maybe you could start using terms like “the Ministry of Love”?

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Loviatar 07.21.08 at 1:26 am

I’m late to the game on this but I’m going to post anyway.

First; Great Post Kieran, concisely put together with an excellent take down of the tough on crime initiative that started in the 80’s with Reagan. A tangential but I think supporting point to your post is an argument I always may to colleagues and friends who dislike the high cost of education (especially teachers pay); I always say either you pay the teachers today or you’ll pay the cops tomorrow. If you stint on education when that student reaches a certain age and they fell they have no chance at life, believe me they will turn turn to crime.

Also, I was wondering how soon the first post was going to be on what I call the “Cult of Giuliani” (in your case it was the first post). The claim that the mass imprisonments of the 80s and 90s resulted in lower crime during the 90’s with references to Giuliani and the awesome job he did in NYC. What the people posting that crap never do is give credit to the Clinton economy of the 90s that gave jobs to everyone who wanted one. My grandmother had a saying “if you were working you weren’t stealing, because you were too damm tired to steal”.

Once again, great Post Kieran.

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tom f 07.21.08 at 11:02 pm

Dan Simon

Parsimony is only useful if it leads to meaningful tests of the hypotheses thereby generated. In 1996 you see curtailment of welfare and a drop in crime. Similarly, an expansion of welfare in the mid-60’s correlates with an increase in crime. You thereby argue , parsimonioulsy that welfare does not effect crime rates.

So then we begin testing our hypothesis. International comparisons. Intranational comparisons in which we control for other factors: unemployment, (as mentioned by Barry 7/20 12:10) number of males age 15-25, increase or decrease in drug markets, etc…

BTW, there’s nothing “miraculous” about any of these explanations. The ad hominem is duly noted.

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Dan Simon 07.22.08 at 5:11 am

Dan are you arguing for a predator-prey model of crime and incarceraton, with prison the predator and criminals the prey?

I’m afraid my epidemiology isn’t sharp enough to figure out the perfect analogy to the relationship between crime and punishment. The closest comparison I can think of is to epidemic pathogens and biologically costly forms of immunity to them. As the pathogen flourishes, it creates an environment that selects for a strong immune response. The prevalence of this response suppresses the pathogen, shifting the environment in turn towards one that selects for weak immunity.

you have yet to explain why countries with lower incarceration rates historically have had lower crime rates.

Are you sure this is true? After all, once you start comparing different countries, the confounding factors multiply enormously. That means you really can’t just throw away inconvenient data, and, say, compare the US with an agglomerated Europe. How does Japan compare, for instance? What about differences within Europe? Where do, say, Middle Eastern countries, or sub-Saharan African ones, fit on the scale? (I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d be amazed if anyone could get any convincing signal out of such noisy data.)

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MQ 07.22.08 at 6:43 am

In Levitt’s review article, he’s citing a long line of 1990s research on the relationship between imprisonment and crime, research which tries to use exogenous shifts in imprisonment to measure impacts on crime. It’s good research, much better methodologically I think than what Western tried to do in Punishment & Inequality ; I think Western’s estimate of the impact of imprisonment on crime in the 1990s is quite implausibly low. A problem with Levitt’s one-third impact is that the studies he cites measured impacts toward the earlier part of the period when the marginal impact of imprisonment on crime might be higher. But still, I think a quarter to a third of the drop in 1990s crime can reasonably be traced to higher imprisonment. That would mean tens of thousands of lives saved and perhaps hundreds of thousands of violent crimes averted.

There is no contradiction at all in saying that the rise in imprisonment saved many lives and had positive effects while at the same time being a massively inefficient dragnet approach to reducing crime, that could be much better targeted. Even though there is no factual implausibility in saying that — indeed, it seems plausible enough — there’s an emotional contradiction, since the pro and anti-incarceration sides are so politically entrenched. Both sides could be right at the same time.

Politically, though, the majority of the population sees little benefit from reducing imprisonment, and much benefit from the reduction in crime that has accompanied it. The cost of the incarceration increase is low on the scale of American spending — tens, not hundreds of billions a year, less than one-half of one percentage point of GDP. And the human costs of the increase are heavily, heavily concentrated among minority high school dropouts and their families.

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abb1 07.22.08 at 7:04 am

Lol, the compounding factors, the inconvenient data.

I told you he believes it’s genetic, in a vulgar Steven-Pinkerish sort of way. He’s just too chicken to come out and say it. You’re suppose to come to the ‘obvious’ conclusion yourself.

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MQ 07.22.08 at 1:51 pm

why was my comment not allowed on?

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sg 07.22.08 at 7:35 pm

I think you are arguing for such a model Dan, and it doesn’t work. Crime comes from somewhere, from decisions by people to commit an act in a certain context. Their behaviour isn’t determined entirely by knowledge of whether they can get caught, but by a range of competing factors, many of which are related to poverty, class culture, and the degree of disorder in the societies and communities in which they live. All these factors can be and are controlled by governments, and in the USA’s closest international comparators they are more closely controlled than in the US. In Australia, for example, marijuana is in some areas decriminalised, healthcare is free at the point of care for all, drug users get free needles and HIV tests, and methadone treatment is provided in prisons. Incarceration rates are lower because the society wants to find other ways to manage crime, and because the welfare system in place enables us to do that.

If you want to show that crime is just determined by whether people think they will get caught, you have to show that these other factors make no difference to the crime rate, and it is only affected by incarceration rates.

If, on the other hand, you think incarceration rates change according to peoples’ response to crime, you need to accept that the crime came first, and you need to explain what drives that crime. This is an interesting conversation to have, consistent with the statistical history of crime in the US (why did it drop in the ’50s? Was it really demographic change? How important was the Vietnam war and its aftermath?) But you don’t seem to want that conversation.

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