October 28, 2010
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.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.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.
Violent Crime involves unlawful force or threat of force:
Property crime is committed against property without force:
DefinitionYet 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
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