The Crime Bill Is Better Than Nothing Barely

For Americans already worried sick about crime, there can be few less appetizing sights than watching Washington politicians wrangle over the so-called Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994. After months of deliberation, Congress and the Clinton Administration are still laboring to bring forth a six-year, $30 billion crime bill that covers everything from new lighting for national parks to the death penalty for fatal drive-by shootings. Will Americans be satisfied with what their money buys them?

The answer is yes--but just barely. Certainly, there's little doubt that the country needs to put more resources into fighting and preventing lawlessness. Crime costs the country $425 billion a year, BUSINESS WEEK estimates. And the fear of potential crime forces many people to change their activities, their jobs, and even where they live. Given the magnitude of the problem, the size of the new bill--which would add about 5% to the sum spent on law enforcement and corrections by state and local governments--is, if anything, too small.

FOOLISH SPENDING. But the crime bill in its present incarnation suffers from a critical problem: It doesn't spend the nation's money wisely. The issue is not simply pork, of which the original version of the bill contained ample amounts. More important, the crime legislation puts too much money into new prisons and untested social programs, neither of which has proven effective in cutting crime. At the same time, the bill stints on new police and the handful of social programs known to be useful in holding down crime.

Consider: The crime bill calls for spending almost $10 billion on prisons, boot camps, and other forms of incarceration. That strategy for crime control, however, has been tried with little success. Since 1980, tougher sentencing laws, especially for drug crimes, almost tripled the number of state and federal prisoners. By comparison, far fewer resources were devoted to hiking the number of police per capita, which rose by less than 20% (chart). Indeed, some states, such as California, used new prisons as almost their only response to rising crime rates.

And while incarceration certainly does get criminals off the street, academics and policy analysts have found little solid evidence that that threat deters crime. The violent crime rate is up sharply since 1980, despite the prison boom, as new criminals have moved in to replace the ones sent to jail. "What we do know is that prison doesn't uork to reduce the crime rate," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group advocating alternative sentencing programs. That's something that many politicians are willing to admit--but only in private.

One alternative is to add more police, who could deter crime by their presence. But in contrast to its generous funding for prisons, the current crime bill will lead to 30,000 new police, far fewer than the 100,000 additional cops that its supporters claim. The arithmetic is simple. Over its six-year lifetime, the bill provides an average of $1.5 billion a year to state and local governments for new police, with the recipients picking up 25% of the tab. If putting a new cop on the street costs $60,000, including salary, benefits, equipment, and training, that means only 30,000 new police. That's unfortunate, because researchers such as Ann Witte of Wellesley College have shown that increased spending on police can deter crime.

LOST CHANCE. And while the funding of social programs as an alternative to crime is sound in principle, the bill doesn't focus on those programs that studies show to have a measurable impact on the crime rate. These are mainly intensive programs such as the Job Corps and Head Start, which can help kids before they become the next generation of criminals. Instead, the bill now gives state and local governments $6.9 billion for a hodgepodge of untested social programs such as gang prevention and midnight basketball. While all of these sound good, there's little or no solid evidence that they bring down crime.

These defects don't mean that the crime bill is better off dead. In the war on crime, even 30,000 new cops are better than nothing. And the limits on assault weapons will surely save some lives. But given all the hoopla over the crime bill, it could have been much better--and that's the real tragedy.

Mandel wrote BUSINESS WEEK's Cover Story, "The Economics of Crime" (Dec. 13, 1993).

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