Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reconsidering The Liberal Narrative On Crime

For at least half a century, the dominant narrative among liberals and large segments of American society is that criminal behavior is primarily a bi product of economic forces. So, it reasoned that that economic downturns increased crime, a belief which is not support by data. The NY Times had an interesting piece, Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts, which documented how crime has continued to drop, even in the face of a major recession and a surge in the jobless rate. NPR had a broader, article that looked at the history of crime rates in the United States and found that they actually declined during the Great Depression and increased during the economic boom of the 1950's and 1960's.

While experts continue to debate the cause of this phenomena, one thing is for certain, it casts serious doubt on the dominant liberal narrative. In Time Magazine, several theories are presented to explain declining crime, which focus on the evolution of crime prevention strategies, which I have listed below. But, according to Howard Bloom, the inverse relationship between crime and economic decline has occurred in many countries and cultures. In his absolutely fascinating work, the Lucifer Principle, he presents an explanation centered around sociobiologyevolutionary psychology and paleopsychology. Due to time constraints, I cannot undertake an exploration of his fascinating theories, so I highly recommend you read his works, they will encourage you to look at social and cultural phenomena from an entirely different perspective.

The Lockup Factor

In his book Why Crime Rates Fell, Tufts University sociologist John Conklin concluded that up to half of the improvement was due to a single factor: more people in prison. The U.S. prison population grew by more than half a million during the 1990s and continued to grow, although more slowly, in the next decade. Go back half a century: as sentencing became more lenient in the 1960s and '70s, the crime rate started to rise. When lawmakers responded to the crime wave by building prisons and mandating tough sentences, the number of prisoners increased and the number of crimes fell.

The Data-Processing Factor

"In interviews with police chiefs across the country, TIME heard the same story again and again. It is the saga of a revolution in law enforcement, a new way of battling the bad guys, and it begins, at least in some tellings, with a colorful New York City transit cop named Jack Maple. He worked the subways back when the city was averaging four, five, almost six murders a day, and even though the experts informed him that crime was inseparable from such "root causes" as poverty and despair, Maple developed a theory that the key cause was criminals. If police collected and analyzed enough data, they could figure out where the criminals liked to operate and when they tended to be there. VoilĂ : go there and arrest them, and crime would go down. Maple sold his boss, William Bratton, on the idea of data-driven policing, and when Bratton was promoted to police commissioner under New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994, his ideas went citywide. They evolved into CompStat, a real-time database of crime statistics and other intelligence useful for pinpointing trouble spots and targeting resources. CompStat put precinct captains and district commanders in the hot seat, and results followed. Crime plummeted. The city of fear became one of the safest major cities in America, and Commissioner Bratton landed on the cover of TIME."

The New Economy of Crime

Criminologists will tell you, however, that the tale of CompStat is not the whole story. New York City's crime rate actually began to drop a couple of years before Giuliani became mayor. And rates began falling in cities without CompStat at about the same time — though not as rapidly as in New York. For while police were changing tactics, the criminals were shifting gears too.

The high-crime hell of the 1980s and early '90s was a period of chaos in the illegal drug trade. Powder cocaine was generally measured and sold in multiple-dose amounts behind locked doors, but crack was relatively cheap and highly portable. Upstart young dealers saw an opening and shouldered their way into a business long dominated by established kingpins. Trading valuable drugs for ready cash in plain sight was a recipe for robbery and intimidation. Dealers armed themselves for protection, and soon every teenage squabble in crack territory carried a risk that bullets would fly.

From that low point, the drug business has settled down in most cities. Distribution is better organized. Crack use has fallen by perhaps 20%, according to UCLA criminal-justice expert Mark Kleiman, as younger users have turned against a drug that had devastated their neighborhoods. Opiates and marijuana are illegal, just like cocaine, but they don't turn users into paranoid, agitated, would-be supermen. "A heroin corner is a happy corner" where junkies quietly nod off, says David Simon, creator of the TV series The Wire, who used to cover cops for the Baltimore Sun.

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