The difference between crime and, you know, crime-crime

Most of us would agree that crime sucks. But when we talk about crime, what do we mean by the term? All crime? Or crimes that we fear, because they are of the sort that would personally threaten us?

Glenn Reynolds recently linked a Reason piece by Radley Balko titled "More Democracy, More Incarceration," which grapples with the "30-year incarceration binge that has made America far and away the democratic world's leader in putting people behind bars."

The numbers are staggering. In 1970 one in 400 American adults was behind bars or on parole. As of 2008, the number was one in 100. Add in probation, and it's one in 31. The number of people behind bars for drug crimes has soared from 40,000 in 1980 to about half a million today.
It isn't surprising if we consider the gigantic increase in legislation that criminalizes nearly anything and everything. Overcriminalization is a hot topic among legal scholars, and many a law professor has been known to tell his students that most of them are technically criminals. As Glenn put it last year, "everyone is a criminal of some sort, whether they know it or not."

And we're not just talking about a crime a day. According to Harvey Silverglate, the average American commits Three Felonies a Day (which is the title of his book).

Now, if we are all criminals who commit three felonies a day, then this country has achieved virtual saturation with a crime rate of 100% -- which means it should not surprise anyone that the incarceration rate has quadrupled, because if all criminals were properly incarcerated for their crimes, there would be no free citizens in the country walking the streets. (What a shameful thing to have happen in a free country!)

Which is why I was baffled to read that the "crime rate" has actually fallen dramatically:

America's soaring incarceration rate may be largely due to the fact that we have one of the most politicized criminal justice systems in the developed world. In most states, judges and prosecutors are elected, making them more susceptible to slogan-based crime policy and an electorate driven by often irrational fear. While the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, polls consistently show that the public still thinks crime is getting worse.

In response to these fears, legislators have increasingly eroded the discretion of prosecutors and judges (already subject to political pressures) in charging defendants and imposing sentences. Under the theory that more punishment is always better, lawmakers have imposed mandatory minimum sentences, made parole and probation more difficult, and decreed that mere possession of drugs above a certain quantity is automatically treated as distribution. The democratic demand for such policies may be clearest in California, where it is relatively easy to pass legislation through ballot initiatives. Such initiatives have led to some of the toughest crime policies in the country--and nearly twice as many prisoners as the state's prisons are supposed to hold.

This all left me thoroughly confused.

How could the crime rate be going down if we are all three-felonies-a-day criminals?

Reading the piece that Balko linked, I began to understand that what we call "crime" does not consist of the ordinary felonies we normal people commit in our daily lives:

The murder rate rose and fell over the 20th century, climbing to an early peak in 1933, then dropping sharply and staying low through the Depression, World War II, and into the 1960s. It rose to a record level in 1974, broke that record in 1980, and stayed prodigiously bloody through the early '90s. This is when Bill Clinton boosted funding for local police forces, and police began experimenting with radical new approaches to policing, such as those employed in the so-called Boston Miracle. In 1994, the murder rate started to fall, and it's been falling ever since. Rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have dropped along with it. Last year was no exception. According to preliminary FBI data, the murder rate dropped 10 percent from 2008 to 2009, robbery fell 6.5 percent, aggravated assault fell 3.2 percent, auto theft was down a whopping 18.7 percent.

But as the crime rate has dropped, Americans have missed the news. The number of people who told Gallup that crime is getting worse climbed to 74 percent last year, a figure higher than any year since the carnage of the early '90s.

So, just because Americans are committing more crimes than ever before thanks to the overcriminalization problem, that does not mean crime is getting worse.

We have to distinguish between "crime" and crime. (Or maybe I should Whoopify things and call it "crime-crime.")

in 2002, American worries about crime resumed their upward march. The Gallup poll that year found that 62 percent of Americans believed crime had increased over the previous year - while in reality, according to FBI statistics, crime had fallen by 1.1 percent.
Aha!

By "crime rate," they mean FBI crime statistics.

The FBI crime statistics are divided into Violent Crime and Property Crime.

Violent Crime involves unlawful force or threat of force:

Definition

In the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Violent crimes are defined in the UCR Program as those offenses which involve force or threat of force.


Property crime
is committed against property without force:
Definition

In the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, property crime includes the offenses of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. The object of the theft-type offenses is the taking of money or property, but there is no force or threat of force against the victims. The property crime category includes arson because the offense involves the destruction of property; however, arson victims may be subjected to force. Because of limited participation and varying collection procedures by local law enforcement agencies, only limited data are available for arson. Arson statistics are included in trend, clearance, and arrest tables throughout Crime in the United States, but they are not included in any estimated volume data. The arson section in this report provides more information on that offense.

Yet the prisons are crammed full of people who are convicted of drug offenses, as well as people who have committed white collar crimes, or one of the numerous offenses against the bureaucracy. (There are now so many thousands of federal crimes that no one can count them.)

But this still begs the question of what is crime? Do we know what we are talking about?

To the FBI (and to those who refer to "the crime rate") crime is either the use of force or violence against another person, or an act directed against another person's property. (Geez, that sounds awfully like the libertarian definition.)

What the FBI defines as crimes consist of hostile acts by criminals of the sort that we typically would live in fear of happening to us.

Crimes that we fear. Yet the prisons are filled to an unprecedented degree with people incarcerated for committing the sort of crimes we do not fear.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether prison should be used that way.

MORE: Many thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and a warm welcome to all.

Comments welcome, agree or disagree.

AND MORE: In an earlier email to my co-blogger M. Simon (whose writing about the war on drugs is second to none), I sent a link to Milton Friedman's 1989 open letter to Bill Bennett which I'd been staring at for a couple of days. Some of Friedman's thoughts might be instructive:

Had drugs been decriminalized 17 years ago, "crack" would never have been invented (it was invented because the high cost of illegal drugs made it profitable to provide a cheaper version) and there would today be far fewer addicts. The lives of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent victims would have been saved, and not only in the U.S. The ghettos of our major cities would not be drug-and-crime-infested no-man's lands. Fewer people would be in jails, and fewer jails would have been built.
That was written in 1989, when Friedman looked back at what he had written in 1972, and could say "I told you so."

It's too bad that twenty one years later, he's not around to say "I told you so!" again.

posted by Eric on 10.28.10 at 12:51 PM










Comments

Sounds like "crime-crime" refers to crimes we fear happening to us, and "crime" in the over-criminalized sense means crimes we fear being charged with as we go about our daily lives.

notaclue   ·  October 28, 2010 2:33 PM

And don't forget that many police depts have been caught "cooking the books" by misreporting serious crimes as lesser offenses, and ignoreing many petty crimes completely. Remember Oakland CA just a few months back saying that they would not send out a policeman or take a report for many petty crimes?

Robert   ·  October 28, 2010 3:03 PM

What the FBI defines as crimes consist of hostile acts by criminals of the sort that we typically would live in fear of happening to us.

Crimes that we fear. Yet the prisons are filled to an unprecedented degree with people incarcerated for committing the sort of crimes we do not fear.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider whether prison should be used that way.

Or perhaps it's time to stop believing in "victimless crimes". All those drug users in jail aren't out on the street committing petty theft in order to get their next fix.

Yes, I'd like to see an end to the drug war. But, until we can get that, prices are going to be high, and junkies are going to be committing crimes to buy their drugs. Whether they're busted for their drugs, or busted for their thefts, they're still busted, and they're still not out here stealing from the rest of us.

If incarcerations are up, and crime rates are down, that's an indication that we're throwing the right people in jail, no?

Greg Q   ·  October 30, 2010 2:45 PM

If you seriously think that a large percentage of our prison population are gentle, innocent souls who wouldn't be there but for evil laws that criminalize normal activity, I invite you to visit your local court and sit in on a few criminal trials.

Of course, doing so would not be the complete picture as you would only see those cases that were not pled down or pled out.

In most cases, you have to work hard to earn one of the increasingly scarce slots in our overcrowded prisons, handfuls of ancedotes notwithstanding.

Ryan Waxx   ·  October 30, 2010 5:09 PM

You seem to be a suburbanite. One who does not seem to be affected by the media's "If it bleeds it leads" philosophy. Glad you have the luxury. Me? I live in an inner city neighborhood. I have had a body dropped on my lawn. I have been threatened by young black men. I live amongst women whose lives have been torn apart by violence. One of their children is serving 25 to life for murder. I often find prostitutes on my street. I was backing into my driveway and saw two guys wrestling in the snow. Thought "crazy kids" and went inside. Looked outside several minutes later and found the street lined with police. The "wrestling match" was an attempted robbery and the victim got shot.
Make all the distinctions you want. I can't get people jailed fast enough to have a reasonable facsimile of a peaceful life.

ed   ·  October 30, 2010 5:13 PM

The author seems to forget that many large cities are now either not reporting or deliberately underreporting their crimes in order to not look so bad in the statistics. Crime rates go down when crimes are not reported.

Mike S.   ·  October 30, 2010 5:19 PM

" All those drug users in jail aren't out on the street committing petty theft in order to get their next fix."

Greg, you paint with too broad a brush, assuming that everyone in jail for drug possession is a junkie who steals for his fix. In many cases I'm sure that's true. What about a gainfully employed and otherwise law-abiding citizen who is caught with drugs for his personal use and the judge throws the book at him? There is a tragic number of these, too.

Ernie G   ·  October 30, 2010 5:29 PM

"What about a gainfully employed and otherwise law-abiding citizen who is caught with drugs for his personal use and the judge throws the book at him? There is a tragic number of these, too."

No there isn't. It's exceedingly rare. And usually ameliorated by an early parole. Regardless of what these mythical "hanging judges" desire, the penal system has ways of relieving itself of these burdens to make room for the more serious threats to person or property.

Alabama   ·  October 30, 2010 6:01 PM

I'd be curious if one of the reasons for more perceived crime is (1) more younger professionals staying in the cities and trying to get a few extra years in before moving out to the burbs; and (2) underreported property crime. We had a series of auto parts being stolen off of/out of cars parked in the streets, and the police didn't even bother to make reports - they just told us to report it to our insurance company. I'd be curious if their statistics show a corresponding property crime decrease...

Dee G   ·  October 30, 2010 6:04 PM

As the spouse of a murder victim, I am biased. I also know that growing up in the 60s, I personally knew few people who had been the victim of a violent crime or closely related to one. Now I know quite a few.

While I am against the incarceration of non violent drug offenders, I also think that putting people in jail is one of the reasons that the crime rate has lowered.

Finally, I think drugs should be decriminalized or legalized though I don't know what the final form should be.

Greg   ·  October 30, 2010 6:06 PM

It's much easier to prove drug possession than it is to prove burglary or robbery or assault. So far too frequently, prosecutors are willing to swap a guilty plea to lessor "drug possession" charge in exchange for not having to go to a jury to get that other conviction. This has the side benefit of removing a cause of a lot of local crimes from a neighborhood, which is the rationalization/justification for it. (And it saves the gov't time/money as well as not getting jury nullification involved.)

So we end up with a lot of prisoners whose only "crime" is possession, but who have long lists of accusations for all sorts of other activity. People for whom it's hard to get all worked up and weepy for, when they are the props used by bleeding hearts working up sympathy for "non-violent drug offenders." Maybe you can point to individual anecdotal cases, but statistically, those people deserve to be locked up.

Raoul Ortega   ·  October 30, 2010 6:12 PM

It is oversimplifying to say that minimum-sentence laws are motivated by crime statistics and general fear of crime. More specifically, they are motivated by extremely bad decisions by judges, parole boards, and governors: murders, rapists, armed robbers being given light sentences or early releases, only to commit the same crime or a worse one soon after they get out.

A lot of judges, parole-board members, and governors don't believe in justice the way that most voters do. They treat violent crime as a social or psychological disorder that needs to be treated instead of deliberately vicious behavior that needs to be punished. This is the real motivation behind minimal-sentencing laws. The laws are intended as correctives and censures for bad judgment on the part of people in the legal system, not just as feel-good measures to make people feel safer.

Doc Rampage   ·  October 30, 2010 6:36 PM

So we end up with a lot of prisoners whose only "crime" is possession, but who have long lists of accusations for all sorts of other activity. People for whom it's hard to get all worked up and weepy for, when they are the props used by bleeding hearts working up sympathy for "non-violent drug offenders." Maybe you can point to individual anecdotal cases, but statistically, those people deserve to be locked up.

So what you're saying, Raoul is that we should have drug laws only because police can't do their job? If these crooks deserve to be locked up, then they deserve to be charged with the serious crimes they committed, not some weaselly default crime that a significant portion of the US commits casually.

I ran across an interesting anecdote when I was in jury selection for a murder trial. The trial ended up going through about 70 people. I think a bit shy of a couple dozen potential jurors reported being victims of property crimes that had happened to them personally (usually breaking and entering of cars and homes). To the last person, none of them knew if the police had ever caught the person responsible.

Among violent crimes there was considerably more effort to enforce. A case of sexual assault against a minor (there may have been more, but these weren't discussed openly in court, jurors could chose to be privately interviewed) resulted in arrest as did a mugging (the guy got off in the latter case because the victim couldn't identify him in court after he had shaved).

Point was, if the risk of violence was present (especially if there were eye witnesses), then law enforcement was pretty aggressive. Property crimes were invariably ignored.

While I wouldn't want to live in a society where violence is ignored, neither do I want to live in a society where drug law or similar bogus law is used as a feeble replacement for enforcing the real laws of the land. Because law enforcement is human and imperfect, eventually the bogus law will be used against the innocent.

Karl Hallowell   ·  October 30, 2010 6:53 PM

For far too long society, and the powers that be, have looked askance at property-crimes, after all, it's only "stuff"; forgetting that Mr. Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed Man's Rights as "Life, Liberty, and Property".
When we let property theft go unpunished, we get more of it, and if your possessions are constantly at risk of theft, it is very hard to accumulate "wealth" in any form.
Crime does cause Poverty!

AD   ·  October 30, 2010 7:48 PM

The Crime rate is going down precisely beacuse we are keeping the violent swine that prey on the law-abiding 98% locked up longer for their early crimes. Waiting until they become rapists, armed robbers and murderers is folly. The indisputable fact is that ALL violent criminals start their life of endless crime with lesser crimes, just as all alchoholics start their drinking lives with one drink. Get the asocial losers locked up early and often. The solution is build more prisons, if you are actually concerned that they are becoming overcrowded--I'm not. Is there still open floor space? Then they are not overcrowded.

Francis Chalk   ·  October 30, 2010 8:15 PM

The more laws are passed and taxes assessed, the greater the number of lawbreakers and tax evaders. Lao Tzu

Concerned Citizen   ·  October 30, 2010 9:37 PM

the answer to anti-social behavior is NOT to accept anti-social behavior.

when people get tired of being locked up, they'll stop committing crimes against others.

when i've half-killed myself working hard to purchase a home, or a decent vehicle, i'll be damned if i'm going to let 'non-violent' punks get away with trashing my life's work.

NoWringingOfHands   ·  October 30, 2010 10:58 PM
M. Simon   ·  October 30, 2010 11:23 PM

And thanks for the link!

M. Simon   ·  October 30, 2010 11:56 PM

I know - we can make farting in public a crime and we can be sure the police will only go after the REAL CRIMINALS.

We will keep them in jail for twenty or thirty years and voila - no crime.

That would be just.

M. Simon   ·  October 31, 2010 2:36 AM

In Canada, we've been hearing about the falling crime rate for a decade now. What they won't tell you is that the crime in many (maybe all) demographics has gone up.

How can this be? The population in the 15-30 age bracket, when most crime is committed, is declining. Changes in the crime rate are not a result of policy or morality, they are an accident of demography.

Pete E   ·  October 31, 2010 5:20 AM

when i've half-killed myself working hard to purchase a home, or a decent vehicle, i'll be damned if i'm going to let 'non-violent' punks get away with trashing my life's work.

Well, then you are damned unless you got some personal power (eg, a gun) to back up that talk. The whole point of this story is that law is being selectively and sparsely enforced. In addition, legislators, rather than ensure that existing law is enforced, merely pass more ineffective law.

---

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

- Benjamin Franklin

Karl Hallowell   ·  October 31, 2010 9:58 AM

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