How To Tackle Crime? Take A Tough, Head On Stance

Fear of crime in the streets, at home, or at school has an enormous impact on the everyday life of urban residents in the U.S., and increasingly on suburban residents as well. Yet politicians only recently have begun to place crime at the top of their agendas.

The anticrime bill now moving quickly through the U.S. Senate authorizes spending $22 billion, including $9 billion to help cities hire up to 100,000 additional police and $6 billion for federal high-security prisons and other correctional programs. Other provisions ban assault weapons, require mandatory life sentences for certain repeat offenders, and expand the death penalty to cover additional crimes.

The book Crime and Human Nature by James Wilson and Richard Herrnstein summarizes many studies showing that appropriate punishments--especially raising the certainty of punishment via more police, quicker trials, and higher conviction rates--are effective in reducing the number of criminals who rob, steal, or rape. Still, some observers question whether punishment has all that much effect on crime. These critics point to an apparent large increase in violent crime during the 1980s, a decade in which the number of people in state and federal prisons almost trebled.

According to data compiled by the FBI from police reports, crimes of violence and crimes against property grew at a rapid rate in the 1960s and 1970s as the certainty of punishment plunged, partly because of an expansion in the rights of those accused of crime. But in the 1980s, the Supreme Court toughened its stance on criminal rights, yet crime appeared to continue to increase.

IDEAL JURORS. But more accurate data than police reports exist to measure crime. The National Crime Surveys of the Census Bureau ask households whether they have been victims of crime. These data show much higher crime rates than the FBI statistics do, but they also show that per capita violent crimes declined by 10% since 1979, although they have grown a little during the past few years. Crimes against property fell by more than 25% after 1979. So the Supreme Court's retreat on criminal rights during the 1980s and the corresponding growth in the prison population may have reduced crime.

Many politicians in the U.S. have shrunk from calling for a tough approach on crime for fear of sounding racist, since African Americans and Hispanics commit a disproportionate share of felonies. But it is just these groups who suffer the most from crime, and polls consistently show that they want more police protection and tougher treatment of criminals. A federal prosecutor once told me that he prefers to have older, employed, urban blacks as jurors in criminal cases, because they are least likely to show leniency toward defendants after having experienced so much crime firsthand.

The attitudes revealed by these polls have been reflected in recent local and state elections, with candidates responding more aggressively to crime. Both blacks and whites running for mayor and for governor in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Virginia, and elsewhere promised to add many more police to patrol streets. Voters in the state of Washington approved a proposal to make life sentences mandatory for criminals convicted a third time for a serious offense. It is not surprising that politicians are taking a tougher stance on crime. The puzzle is that it took them so long.

HOODLUM NETWORKS. Police, courts, and prisons account for only 6% of state and local government expenditures and less than 1% of the federal budget. Special interests that demand agricultural supports, entitlements, and other programs dominate such a large share of government budgets that little is left over for such essential services as crime control, which affects everyone.

More police and greater punishment are sometimes considered to be ineffective because criminals are said to be unaware of their chances of being caught and punished. But this argument confuses what law-abiding citizens know about these matters with what hoodlums know. Information spreads rapidly in their network when there is a police crackdown. They know firsthand that young offenders are usually not punished except for serious crimes. And the grapevine tells them that Judge X is tough on crime, while Judge Z is not.

Some intellectuals and politicians continue to justify paying less attention to police and punishment because they believe the highest priority should go to rehabilitation of criminals and amelioration of the root causes of crime: racism, unemployment, unstable families, and poor schools. But the evidence is overwhelming that it is very hard to rehabilitate habitual criminals.

Although root causes are important, social policy can do little in the short run to reduce the number of broken families, racists, bad schools, or people with poor job skills. The case for more police and additional punishment rests on the immediate impacts these measures can achieve. They do not take a generation to become effective: They can reduce crime straightaway.