Legacies of the Violent Decades.

The 1970s and 1980s were violent decades.[1] The rate for all violent crime rose from about 500/100,000 people to almost 800 between 1975 and 1991. The robbery rate rose from about 200/100,000 people in 1975 to about 270 in 1991. The rate for aggravated assaults rose from about 230/100/000 people to about 450 in 1992. From 1975 through 1991 the murder rate bounced around between 8 and 10/100,000 people. In 1990 there were 2,245 homicides in New York City (five a day), and 474 homicides in Washington, DC (more than one a day).

State and federal governments lashed out against this spike in crime with the weapons at hand. The federal government directed billions of dollars to the states to increase the number of police and to build prisons to house the people the police caught. Sentences were lengthened for some crimes and mandatory minimums were imposed to limit the freedom of judges. Between the early 1970s and 2009 the number of people in state or federal prisons quadrupled to about 1.5 million people.

Then the rates of violent crime began to drop. The rate for all violent crime fell by 51 percent, to a level 25 percent below the 1975 rate. The rate for aggravated assault fell from its 1992 peak by 48 percent, roughly back to where it had been in 1975. The rate for robbery fell by from its 1991 peak by 60 percent, to a level 51 percent below the 1975 rate. The murder rate fell from its 1992 peak by 41 percent, to a level slightly below its 1975 rate. In 2014 there were 328 homicides in New York City (less than 1/day) and 104 homicides in Washington, DC (two/ week).

This remarkable change has begun to spark debate, just as did the remarkable spike in violence in America before 1990. One question is what has happened since 1990 to bring down the rate of violent crime? Experts are not entirely sure how to answer this question. They do agree on some things. First, targeted policing is a big part of the answer. New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton introduced the use of computer data and crime mapping (“CompStat”) to identify targets for police efforts.   Police began to concentrate their efforts on these identifiable trouble spots. Drugs used to be sold right out on the street. Aggressive policing pushed the sales in-doors. That didn’t do much to cut down on drug use, but it did make drive-by shootings a lot less lethal. The “broken windows” strategy came to be widely adopted. Second, tougher sentencing and mass incarceration played a lesser role than advocates expected.[2]

A second question is about what to do going forward? On the one hand, what is to be done with the large numbers of people still locked up from the previous decades? If they are released, will they just return to their old ways? Can people convicted of non-violent crimes be safely released and better served with drug-treatment programs? Going forward, should the length of sentences be reduced?

On the other hand, should the aggressive policing that accompanied the reduction in crime be scaled back? When crime rates are high and people are afraid, they are willing to tolerate aggressive forms of policy that they will not tolerate when crime rates are low and people feel secure. “Stop and frisk” has come under heavy fire. It has been argued that this kind of policing—which may have created the situation in which Eric Garner died—has begun to alienate law-abiding people in the communities on which the police focus. Can the police operate in an environment in which they are widely viewed as the enemy?

See: “The Senator from San Quentin”; “Military Police”; Death Wish.”

[1] Erik Eckholm, “With Crime Down, U.S. Faces Legacy of a Violent Age,” NYT, 14 January 2015.

[2] Which is not the same as saying that they played no role.

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The Senator from San Quentin.

During the 1980s violent crime rose to new peaks. The murder rate in 1991 reached 9.8/100,000, about four times the rate in, say, France. A criminologist named George Kelling argued that the toleration of all sorts of little crimes or acts of indecency—even broken windows or vandalism or those homeless goofs at intersections trying to extort pocket change for cleaning your windows—created an atmosphere of disrespect for the law. From little things, people went on to feel less restrained about bigger things. Kelling sold this idea to New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. New York cops started pushing the homeless into shelters, clearing the intersections of squeegee men, and stopping kids from hanging out on street corners.

However, Bratton also embraced the idea that a lot of crime is committed by a few people, and a little crime is committed by a lot of people. You want a big drop in crime? Concentrate on the few career criminals and put them away for a long time. Bratton concentrated on a statistical analysis of crime in each police precinct, then drove his precinct captains to find and arrest habitual criminals. This seemed to work, so lots of police departments adopted the New York approach. Bratton’s approach coincided with a get-tough policy adopted by legislatures in the Nineties. Mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing kept criminals in prison for longer. The war on drugs, especially the crack cocaine epidemic, sent a lot more people to prison. Guys who are locked up can’t commit crimes, at least not against ordinary citizens. (Fellow prisoners or guards? That’s another story.)

Inevitably, there is a down-side. First, the United States has one-twentieth of the world’s population, but one-fourth of the prison population. That includes both Russia and China. There are more people currently in prison in the United States (2.3 million) than there are in any one of fifteen states, and more than in the four least-populated states put together. The rate of imprisonment in the United States is the highest in the world.

Second, black communities have been particularly hard hit by both crime and punishment. One in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in jail. (The overall ratio of imprisoned to paroled/probationed is about 1:3, so that would suggest that another three in nine black men is under some other form of judicial supervision.) Since felons lose the right to vote, large numbers of blacks have been dis-franchised in what one law professor has labeled “the new Jim Crow.” Since most prisons are located in rural areas, this leads to the over-representation of areas unsympathetic to city problems.

Third, keeping huge numbers of prisoners locked up is really expensive. Americans don’t like to pay taxes, so prison budgets have been held down for decades. The result is massive over-crowding. Courts have repeatedly held this over-crowding to amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Fourth, imprisonment doesn’t seem to do anything to change behavior. Says one criminologist, “two-thirds of those who leave prison will be back within three years.”

What have changed are the crime rates. Between 1991 and 2009, the number of murders fell by 45 percent. From its peak of 9.8/100,000 in 1991, the murder rate fell to 5.0/100,000 in 2009. The same decline has been found in most other categories of crime over the same period. At least for now.

Prisoners are so numerous that, if grouped together and represented in the Congress, they would be a formidable voting bloc.

“The prison nation,” The Week, 13 February 2009, p. 13; “The mystery of falling crime rates,” The Week, 16 July 2010, p. 13.