Crime is Down? Don't Confuse Us with the Facts
Karen Colvard, HFG Senior Program Officer
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Roberts also reviewed experimental evidence from social psychology that people tend to be over-influenced by a single case, which can go on to determine their view of a complex problem. As with the advertisements featuring recidivist rapist and murderer Willie Horton in the Bush-Dukakis presidential contest, public opinion can be moved by a single example. Studies also show that people tend to hold opinions about criminal justice issues with a high degree of confidence, that we are most resistant to changing our most confident opinions, and that we tend to give most credit to evidence which confirms what we already think.

Misinformation and misplaced concerns are implicit even in the arena of criminal justice scholarship: A 1994 call for proposals from the National Science Foundation for a $12 million "Violence Research Consortium" gave three justifications for further research: high levels of crime, random violence, and fear of crime. In fact--and the U.S. government should have known--violent crime was already on a downward swing; "hot-spots" in poor neighborhoods in American inner cities were the quite predictable sites of violence and troubled young men the most likely perpetrators and victims; and widespread fear of crime might not have been much of a problem if the public understood these well-documented facts. Only then would rational public policies become appealing to most voters.(9)

The popular assessment that America's violent culture makes us the world leader in violent crime fuels the fear of crime which so worries the National Science Foundation and conceals within a cultural argument a simple instrumental explanation. The truth is that while U.S. rates of interpersonal crime such as assault are more or less equal to those in European and Asian countries which keep comparable statistics, our rates of homicide--even after recent reductions--are still some ten times as high. And this is because interpersonal crime in America is much more likely to be accompanied by the use of a gun, which is more likely than other weapons to lead to a death. Clinton administration advances in gun regulation, although they have been weak and partial, may account for some part of the recorded reductions in homicide, and further attention to this problem is one clear direction in which politicians and criminologists could find common ground, if resistance on the part of some segments of the public could be overcome.

"Disarming Youth," in this issue, discusses the contribution of gun availability to the dramatic rise of youth homicide in the 1980s and reviews some programs designed to get guns out of the hands of teenagers. Youth crime has also been decreasing (but only since 1992), and some analysts have explained the overall crime drop simply by noting that teenagers commit proportionately more crimes than adults and that we have fewer teenagers today than in the 1980s. They forecast another upswing when the children of the late-reproducing baby boom reach their teenage years. However, the rate of youth crime has decreased, not only the number of crimes committed by teenagers, and it is possible that teenagers of the future will continue to commit crimes at lower rates than 1980s teenagers, for whatever reasons.

Criminologists hold firm opinions, too, and can resist new ideas just as firmly as do other members of the public. Many analysts probably to some degree deserve law professor Randall Kennedy's exasperated comment (speaking specifically about disagreements over race and crime): "Too many commentators make exaggerated claims for results they prefer, denying evidence and arguments that contradict, or at least complicate, the positions they espouse."(10)

In a 1995 review article of several good books taking positions against the explosive growth of incarceration in America, Francis T. Cullen admits that

a whole generation of criminologists were raised to mistrust state power to do good, to believe that "nothing works" to change offenders, and to embrace "doing justice" as a means of "doing less harm." This pessimistic narrative, which seeks to restrain abuse and not to accomplish good, remains plausible to many criminologists, but it sparks little response from the public and has largely lost its power to humanize corrections.(11)

Cullen goes on to argue that prisons can become effective rehabilitators of career criminals.(12)

The always quotable Professor DiIulio has said, "It seems that you need a Ph.D. in criminology to doubt the proposition that putting criminals in prison will keep down crime."(13) He would argue, for example, that if an average street robber (like those reported on in "Creating the Illusion of Impending Death," in this issue) commits even ten crimes in a year, each year in prison prevents the victimization of at least ten targets. From the point of view of one of those people not held up at gunpoint, prison works. But can it be credited with the recent dramatic decreases in crime?

Over the past twenty-so years crime rates have fluctuated: up in the early seventies, down again in the early eighties, up again from 1985 until 1992 when the current dip began. Yet the state and federal prison population has risen steadily from just over 200,000 in 1973 to over one million today. The argument for more imprisonment founders on this paradox: when crime decreases, imprisonment has done it. But when crime increases, we need more prisons. The reasonable assessment is that imprisonment has indeed contributed something to crime control; however, the extremely high rate of imprisonment in the U.S. compared to other countries, particularly other democracies, is a symptom of a social problem equal in weight to our problem with criminal violence and deserving equal concern. When 800 per 100,000 of our male population and 4,350 per 100,000 of our black male population are incarcerated, accusations that the penitentiary is serving as a substitute for more rational and effective ways of giving meaning to the lives of the marginal and dysfunctional begin to make sense.

However, it is not the rate of incarceration that has attracted the most attention--and the greatest credit--for the current crime reduction. Instead news has been about a new style of policing in the streets and communities of our big cities, often called "community policing."

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