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January 29, 2017

"A Better Approach to Violent Crime"

The title of this post is the headline given by the Wall Street Journal to John Pfaff's extended weekend commentary about crime and punishment in the United States. The subheadline provides a better summary of the themes of the extended essay: "If we’re going to end mass incarceration in the U.S., it will mean figuring out better ways to prevent violent crimes and to deal with those who commit them." John's analysis of modern mass incarceration is always in the must-read category, and here are some extended excerpts from this latest piece that help highlight why:

If we are serious about ending mass incarceration in the U.S., we will have to figure out how to lock up fewer people who have committed violent acts and to incarcerate those we do imprison for less time.

There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we’ve kept the crime rate down for so long? The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest. (There may be moral arguments for long sentences, but that is a separate issue from public safety.)...

Violence is a phase, not a state. People age into violent behavior and age out of it: A 24-year-old is more violent than a 7-year-old or a 60-year-old. It’s true that some people are more prone to violence than their peers, but almost everyone exhibits some sort of bell-curved trajectory of violence over their lives. Young men are simply more prone to violence than any other demographic group.

It is almost impossible, however, to predict how violent a young person will be in the future. Imposing harsh sanctions for a first violent act needlessly detains many people who are not serious future risks.  In addition — and somewhat counterintuitively — by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started “aging out” of crime, violent behavior in particular.

A prominent study of hundreds of at-risk men that tracked their behavior from ages 7 to 70, for example, found that most started to engage in crime in their late teens and began to stop in their mid to late 20s. Only about 10% continued to offend consistently into their 30s, and only about 3% did so at high rates.

California has tested this proposition. Since 2012, the state has granted early release to over 2,000 people convicted under its harsh three-strikes law, and their recidivism rate has been about a 10th of the state average (4.7% vs. 45%) — due in no small part to the fact that those released early are often in their 40s and 50s and thus no longer likely to offend. ​

Whether aimed at younger or older defendants, lengthy incapacitation often imposes substantial, avoidable costs — not just on prison budgets but on society at large, which loses many people who might otherwise be productive citizens.  A long prison sentence also undermines someone’s ability to find the stabilizing influence of a job or a spouse, thus increasing the long-run risk that he will reoffend.

The good news is that a growing number of proven tactics can keep violent crime low, and perhaps reduce it even further, without relying as much on prison. If governments lock up fewer people for violent crimes, they can use some of the savings to help fund these alternatives.

One widely adopted approach is what experts call “focused deterrence,” which was first tried, with great success, in Boston in the mid-1990s. Aimed at reducing the violence associated with gang membership, the program brings gang members together with the police, social-service providers and respected members of the local community. They are told that if violence continues, the police will crack down quickly and severely. Those who agree to put violence behind them, however, are offered help with housing, education, drug and alcohol treatment and other services, and community leaders make a moral plea to them.  Such programs have had a significant effect on street violence in many places. Nine of the 10 high-quality studies that have been done on focused deterrence report strong impacts — a 63% decline in youth homicides in Boston, a 35% decline in murders among “criminally active group members” in Cincinnati and so on. ​

A related but less conventional approach called “Cure Violence” has been tried in New York City and Chicago (and even as far afield as Rio de Janeiro and Basra, Iraq). This program treats gun violence as a public-health problem: If left “untreated,” a shooting will be transmitted to another victim, thanks to retaliation. The idea is to interrupt that cycle, relying on people like former gang members (as opposed to the police) to help shooting victims and their friends and family find other, nonviolent ways to resolve the conflict.

Like focused deterrence, this approach also seeks to provide at-risk youth with access to resources, ranging from housing to entertainment. In New York City, a study conducted between 2010 and 2012 found that areas where Cure Violence operated had experienced 20% fewer shootings as compared with similar areas. Conversely, shootings in Chicago began to rise sharply shortly after a stalemate over the state budget resulted in a drastic cut in funding for Cure Violence in March 2015. The biggest increases in lethal violence occurred in those neighborhoods where the program had been used most widely.

Another key tactic is “hot-spot policing.” Crime is generally concentrated in particular neighborhoods.  Some studies have found that half of all urban crimes take place in under 10% of all city blocks.  In Chicago, nearly 45% of the increase in murders between 2015 and 2016 occurred in only five neighborhoods, home to just 9% of the city’s population. Hot-spot policing identifies these high-crime blocks and significantly increases patrols and community involvement there.

It has produced significant results, even in nearby neighborhoods not subject to increased enforcement, which suggests that people are not simply changing where they commit crimes. The Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment, for example, identified 120 blocks that had high levels of violent crime and then assigned additional patrol officers to 60 randomly selected blocks for three months. Hot spots with extra patrols experienced a 23% drop in violent crime relative to those that didn’t. A comprehensive review of the hot-spot literature found that 20 out of 25 tests reported “noteworthy crime control gains.”...

Prison, in short, is by no means the only effective way to respond to violent behavior.  In fact, compared with these programs, prison is likely one of the least efficient approaches that we have.  The declines in incarceration over the past six years are worth celebrating.  But they are modest, in no small part because politicians are understandably afraid to confront a fundamental source of prison growth: our shortsighted policies on violent crime.

If we really hope to scale back our sprawling prison system, we must send fewer people to prison for violent crimes and keep those we do lock up for less time.  Fortunately, we can preserve the tremendous reductions of violence we have experienced over the past 25 years with smarter, safer and more humane approaches.

January 29, 2017 at 04:19 PM | Permalink


I consider his article to be delusional. As we have seen if violent crime is reduced the solution of the Sentencing Commission and of Congress is to broaden the definition of violence to include things not formally considered violent. There is no end to this conceptual drift as we have seen in free speech debates where "eye rape" becomes a crime of violence.

I not saying that efforts to reduce gang violence are misguided. Rather my point is that reducing gang violence is not going to reduce mass incarceration. Congress will just fill those beds with whoever is up next on the "social misfit de jure" list that they maintain somewhere in the bowels of the Rayburn Office Building.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 29, 2017 5:42:46 PM

Assume the lawyer denier propaganda reality is true. Crime counts have not gone from millions a year to billions a year.

You are a doctor. You have saved a diabetic from death in a diabetic coma. He is now taking his insulin regularly. It costs quite a bit of money, for example, $1000 a year or even $10,000, but less, compared to the $million bill for intensive care for diabetic coma. He returns for his regular 3 months checkup. "You have been doing well for 20 years now. Let's stop your insulin." Is that logical in any way? Should the doctor be sued for malpractice for making that statement?

Is diabetes a chronic condition, one that does not go away, that will require insulin for a lifetime? Is crime a chronic condition, one that does not go away, that will require incapacitation for a lifetime?

If a remedy has been effective for 20 years, is it time to stop it, and to have to learn why it was needed again, as if one has forgotten?

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 29, 2017 9:52:41 PM

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