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February 7, 2012

Is the crime rate just shifting, not really declining?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this provacative new piece by Christopher Glazek, sent my way by a kind reader, appearing in the magazine n+1.  The piece is titled, "Raise the Crime Rate," and here is an excerpt:

According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years.  In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City.  In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.

When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent.  Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble.  What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession.  On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s.  This seemed odd.  Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem — progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?

Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con.  Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States — it’s been shifted.  Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells.  The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie — but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

From 1980 to 2007, the number of prisoners held in the United States quadrupled to 2.3 million, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole.  What Ayn Rand once called the “freest, noblest country in the history of the world” is now the most incarcerated, and the second-most incarcerated country in history, just barely edged out by Stalin’s Soviet Union.  We’re used to hearing about the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots; we’re less accustomed to contemplating a more fundamental gap: the abyss that separates the fortunate majority, who control their own bodies, from the luckless minority, whose bodies are controlled, and defiled, by the state.

The rest of this commentary does an effective job discussing various problems of mass incarceration and the so-called "prison-industrial complex," but the claim that crime has merely shifted from outside to inside the prison walls is misguided both statistically and normatively.  We have literally thousands fewer murders outside the prison walls each year now compared to two decades ago, and there are usually only a handful of murders in prison each year.  The rape story is much more complicated and the notion of a mere crime shift here is a bit more plausible.  But, critically, unless sent to prison based on a wrongful conviction, those enduring crime within prison walls are not properly described as a "luckless minority."  Bad luck can often play some role in whether, when and how one gets sent to prison for a crime, but the average citizen can entirely avoid this luck by avoiding any serious criminal wrongdoing.

These concerns notwithstanding, this commentary still makes for an interesting read and it concludes with these sentiment which I consider very sound in many respects:  

If ever there were a time to launch a coordinated assault on the prison-industrial complex, the time is now.  Budgets are strained, voters are angry, and crime is low.  The Tea Party is in the midst of convincing everyone that government is the enemy — and so it is, in the field of criminal justice.

Popular resentment against an authoritarian state shouldn’t be denied or pooh-poohed — it should be seized and marshaled toward progressive ends.  The prison crisis was created by centrists.  Limited reforms and immoral moderation will not end the crisis.  Prisoners and ex-cons, the most abused population in United States, will have to rely on political extremists, on both the left and the right, to turn the page on what will one day be recalled as one of American history’s darkest chapters.

February 7, 2012 at 09:11 AM | Permalink

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Comments

"Crime has not fallen in the United States". This statement alone undermines any credibility by this polemicist.

He later bemoans the fact that "legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers... to a web of hyperhells."

While inmates deserve protection while confined, isn't our primary duty to protect the innocents?

Apparently not if you are Christopher Glazek.

Posted by: mjs | Feb 7, 2012 10:54:21 AM

Aren't we supposed to be happy about these numbers? There may be a shift but still, in a controllable environment, this shift now can be easily contained.

Posted by: Los Angeles Personal Injury Attorney | Feb 7, 2012 12:25:21 PM

The first question is whether the author's premise -- that crimes committed in prison are not counted in the total crime statistics -- is true. I don't know whether it is, and I can't think of any reason it should be. Does anyone have any authoritative source on that?

In a sense, however, it makes no difference. Simply as a matter of numbers (i.e., the number of prisoners versus the massively higher number of the recorded decrease in crimes), the idea that the recorded decrease is simply an illusion is, as Doug points out, "misguided."

Doug's key insight, however, is this: "[C]ritically, unless sent to prison based on a wrongful conviction, those enduring crime within prison walls are not properly described as a 'luckless minority.' Bad luck can often play some role in whether, when and how one gets sent to prison for a crime, but the average citizen can entirely avoid this luck by avoiding any serious criminal wrongdoing."

One of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog in spite of the behavior of some of its commenters is Doug Berman's honesty. It is Holy Writ among some of the commenters here (and elsewhere) that behavior has zip to do with it, and that the reason people wind up in prison is the luck of being the wrong race, the wrong sex, the wrong age, the wrong economic class, or -- more broadly -- the poor luck of being born in a merciless, punitive, belligerent, cowboy, wahoo country like the Really, Really Bad United States of America.

In one clause, Doug explodes this baloney. Read it again: "...the average citizen can entirely avoid this [bad luck of imprisonment] by avoiding any serious criminal wrongdoing."

The secret is out. To paraphrase James Carville's famous insight, "It's the BEHAVIOR, stupid."


Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 7, 2012 1:06:15 PM

I don't get it. How do you say, "the claim that crime has merely shifted from outside to inside the prison walls is misguided both statistically and normatively," and go on to applaud the conclusion of the piece? Are you not arriving at an erroneous end result? Even if you believe that now is the time to launch "a coordinated assault on the prison-industrial complex," how do you justify it statistics and a premise that are based in fiction?

Posted by: Bill B. | Feb 7, 2012 1:28:49 PM

Hi Bill,

I cannot speak authoritatively by any means, but I do know that felonies are reported and prosecuted by the local DAs (at least in NY). I assume that they would be figured into the crime rate like any other.

Where it gets slippery is in the land of misdemeanors. A rape/murder would be reported and a State Police investigation done in addition to the prison investigation. Something like a simple inmate on inmate assault would not, as it would usually be handled internally.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Feb 7, 2012 3:33:51 PM

Hey Bill B.: Though I find the claim in this commentary that crime has just shifted to be misguided, I still think the author of this piece is making a significant point when spotlighting that crime inside prisons is a serious problem and one of many problems that has grown larger as a result of modern mass incarceration and resulting prison overcrowding in many prisons and jails. (Prison rape is an especially sad and under-documented problem, which itself may contribute to recidivism and other future harms outside of the prison setting.)

And, most critically, one need not even have any concern about crime inside prisons to view modern mass incarceration and resulting prison overcrowding as a black mark on the movement toward liberty and greater vindication of American values in the modern US. And, what I find especially sound and profound here is the call to progressives to embrace Tea Party disaffinity with big government in order to engage in a hearty attack on many of the premises that have supported the modern growth in incarceration rates over the last 40 years.

Posted by: Doug B.. | Feb 7, 2012 6:21:58 PM

Here is a link to a NYT article from Monday about the indictment in Missouri of a robo-signing firm and its former CEO for the forging of signatures on foreclosure documents.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/07/business/docx-faces-foreclosure-fraud-charges-in-missouri.html?_r=1&hpw

According to the article this indictment ONLY concerns forged documents utilized in one Missouri political sub-division.

As robo-signing is a national problem, there could conceivably be 100s of 1000s of prosecutable cases. Moreover it is the lowest hanging fruit for prosecution.

I point this out because there has been much discussion here about the decline in crime both in absolute terms and in the rate. I am pleased with this and have said so.

Yet crimes committed in the mortgage securitization process have been almost completely ignored by law enforcement. In spite of the "good" news, it appears we are living in the midst of the biggest crime wave this nation has ever known.

Posted by: Fred | Feb 8, 2012 3:26:15 PM

Hi Doug - I responded to that article at my blog here: http://prisonlaw.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/a-problematic-article-on-prison-reform-in-n1-magazine/

Like you, I think there are some useful provocations in the article, but overall I found it frustrating because of the legal/interpretive errors and/or imprecision.

Posted by: Sara Mayeux | Feb 8, 2012 10:09:35 PM

No one is saying that it was "bad luck" that landed these people in prison. But just because they deserve prison (or at least are responsible for getting themselves sent to prison), does not mean they deserve to be raped, assaulted, held under cruelly unsanitary/unsafe conditions, etc. In that sense, it is "bad luck" that they are incarcerated under a regime that does not take prison security/basic human rights of prisoners seriously.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 9, 2012 11:27:21 AM

"It is Holy Writ among some of the commenters here (and elsewhere) that behavior has zip to do with it..."

Really? Which commenters are those? I'm not sure I've ever read their work.

For my part, let me just say unequivocally that denying that behavior is a relevant causal factor would be as inane as claiming that behavior is the only relevant causal factor.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Feb 10, 2012 3:32:48 PM

Bill Otis: "One of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog in spite of the behavior of some of its commenters is Doug Berman's honesty. It is Holy Writ among some of the commenters here (and elsewhere) that behavior has zip to do with it, and that the reason people wind up in prison is the luck of being the wrong race, the wrong sex, the wrong age, the wrong economic class, or -- more broadly -- the poor luck of being born in a merciless, punitive, belligerent, cowboy, wahoo country like the Really, Really Bad United States of America."

You of all people must know that our "justice system" is not about "truth, justice and the American way." All that matters is that the defendant get a fair trial, regardless of guilt or innocence. The court system is like a casino - the way it is setup, the house nearly always wins.

Crimes rates have been falling since the 1990's. At its peak, there were 1,135,610 robberies in 1991, 778,901 in 2010. There were 24,700 murders in 1991, 14,748 in 2010. Yet, the prison population about doubled between 1990 and 2001. Prison populations started increasing in 1970, and by 1980 the prison population exploded ["independent of the crime rate," Justice Policy Institute]. I find it hard to believe that all the evildoers are locked up. When the crime rate drops, so should the prison population. All I can figure is the prison system is an Everlasting Gobstopper"

Posted by: Huh? | Feb 20, 2012 11:28:47 PM

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