Has mass incarceration given us safe streets?

By Alan Bean

Charles Lane is excited.  Crime rates have been falling across America and, if present trends continue, the safe streets we enjoyed in the 1950s will soon return. 

Lane sees mass incarceration as a curious paradox.  It’s too bad we had to lock up 2.3 million people to “take a bite out of crime”, he seems to say, but that’s the way the corn bread crumbles.

You get the impression that Lane, like most moderate liberals, has formed his conclusions about crime and punishment after reading a single book, in Lane’s case Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe.  How did America solve its crime problem?  We rolled up our sleaves and fixed it, Zimring says.

Fine, but how did we solve the crime problem?  What sort of tough, decisive political decisions did our leaders make?  There can be only one answer: we locked up millions of poor black males.

If Zimring and Lane think that’s a viable solution they need to read Michelle Alexander’s description of the post-prison experience in The New Jim Crow.  Have we solved the crime problem by creating (intentionally or by accident) a new racial caste? 

Lane’s self-congratulatory column explains why William Stuntz finished The Collapse of American Justice on a somber note:

The disaster that is contemporary American criminal justice does not look so disastrous in most places, which is why there has been no sustained political demand for large-scale reform of the justice system. Major changes in the system’s structure . . . require a critical mass of voters (also legislators and appellate judges) to support a program that carries little benefit for them.

Why should Charles Lane worry about problems that are largely invisible from the gentrified and suburban neighborhoods of Washington DC or New York City?  If the streets of the Big Apple are safe again, what’s the problem?

Moderate liberals like Lane have always been part of the problem.  When violence became a wedge issue, liberals adapted by either ignoring the problem (the default strategy in the academy) or by out-toughing the conservatives (the favorite response of politicians).  Now that crime rates are dropping like a rock, liberals are taking all the credit.  Those silly conservatives were wrong to write off the streets to the superpredators, they say, we’ve taken back our country!  It’s morning in America!

So long as conservative and liberal commentators believe that mass incarceration has worked magic the criminal justice reform movement won’t gain any traction.  Lane doesn’t seem to comprehend that lockdown America is nothing to celebrate.  

Taking a bite out of crime

By , Published: December 26

The most important social trend of the past 20 years is as positive as it is underappreciated: the United States’ plunging crime rate.Between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in the United States fell 51 percent, from 9.8 per 100,000 residents to 4.8 per 100,000. Property crimes such as burglary also fell sharply during that period; auto theft, once the bane of urban life, dropped an astonishing 64 percent. And FBI data released Dec. 19 show that the trends continued in the first half of 2011. With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957.

To be sure, the United States is still more violent than Europe or Canada, and that’s nothing to brag about. But this country is far, far safer than it was as recently as the late 1980s, when the movie “Robocop,” set in a future dystopia of rampant urban mayhem, both expressed and exploited the public’s belief that criminals ruled the streets — and always would.

We are reaping a domestic peace dividend, and it can be measured in the precious coin of human life. Berkeley criminologist Franklin E. Zimring has found that the death rate for young men in New York today is half what it would have been if homicides had continued unabated.

The psychological payoff, too, is enormous. Only 38 percent of Americans say they fear walking alone at night within a mile of their homes, according to Gallup, down from 48 percent three decades ago. For my teenage son and his classmates, dread of crime is far less prevalent than it was in my generation. Indeed, other than showing him “Robocop,” I don’t know how to make my kid understand the anxieties we once took for granted.

Lower crime rates also mean one less source of political polarization. In August 1994, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup that crime was the most important issue facing the country; in November 2011, only 1 percent gave that answer. Think political debate is venomous now? Imagine if law and order were still a “wedge issue.”

Did I mention the economic benefits? Safe downtowns draw more tourists for longer stays. Fewer car thefts mean lower auto insurance rates. Young people who don’t get murdered grow up to produce goods and services.

Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right. Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity — that, like the Jets in “West Side Story,” crooks are depraved on account of being deprived. Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave.

Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview. Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory. Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.

On the whole, though, what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink. Crime fell in New York faster than in any other U.S. city over the past two decades — but New York locked up offenders at a below-average rate, according to Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe.”

“What went wrong?” is the question that launched a thousand blue-ribbon commissions. But we also need to investigate when things go right — especially when, as in the case of crime, success defied so many expert predictions.

Clearly the experts underestimated Americans’ capacity to take on a seemingly in­trac­table problem and fix it. The decline of crime, writes Zimring, “provides a decisive response to one of the deepest fears generated in the last third of the twentieth century. We now know that life-threatening crime is not an incurable disease in the United States.”

2 thoughts on “Has mass incarceration given us safe streets?

  1. There is not one word said about drug policy which was the engine of mass incarceration over the last four decades. Not one word was said about the desecration of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution that has been enshrined in public policy for the last 40 years. Not one word is said about the 800 lb Gorilla in the room— “racism in the criminal injustice system” and its impact on communities of poor people of color. We have become a safer society for who? The people in communities of color fear the police more than they fear the “criminals” in their communities. Is that an improvement? Eh!

  2. Nor is the fact that so few criminal convictions are decided by a Judge or jury trial addressed. Most of the readers of this article would be shocked to know how high a proportion of all convictions are reached through plea bargains down from outrageously long consecutive sentences the ADA promises to seek if they gamble on a trial. And how can the hugely inflated numbers of the incarcerated by prisoners with non-violent convictions possibly have an effect on rates of street crime?

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