|Images of Fear: On the Perception and Reality of Crime||View other pieces in "Harper's"|
|By Mark Danner , Lewis H. Lapham, Charles Murray, Susan Jacoby, et al.||May 1985|
|Tags: american politics | Crime | Harper's Forums|
Crime long ago emerged as one of those peculiar phenomena of modern life - the permanent crisis. For twenty years or more, politicians and editorialists have ritually condemned the rising crime rate in American cities: crime, it was de, dared again and again, had become intolerable. Meanwhile, year after year, Americans continued to tolerate it.
Enter Bernhard Goetz, who, by shooting four teenagers last December in a New York City subway car, not only became a national celebrity but added a new twist to a depressingly familiar plot. Goetz's action forced people to confront their own inaction. Why is nothing ever done about crime? Perhaps because be, hind what we call the "crime problem" stand larger, more intractable problems, which the mechanisms of government cannot reasonably be expected to solve. What exactly do Americans mean when they com, plain about crime? To what extent can changes in our criminal justice system affect the crime rate? Does such a vast and complicated problem even admit of a solution? Harper's recently invited a police chief, a judge, a social scientist, a novelist, and several others long interested in the subject to try to distinguish between the perception and the reality of crime.
LEWIS H. LAPHAM: Crime, and the fear of crime, make up the stuff of newspaper headlines. Hardly a week passes but that another study by another police chief, politician, or psychologist doesn't add to the sum of national anxiety. And yet, despite the air of perpetual crisis, little seems to change. The nation spends at least $40 billion a year for the various forms of police protection, but nobody feels safe.
Why is this so, and why does the problem of crime remain so insoluble among a people who pride themselves on their problem solving? Our object in this discussion is not to run through the familiar list of answers - putting more police officers on the street, mandating stricter sentences for convicted felons, building bigger and better prisons. All these proposals have been offered before, many, many times; some of them have even been put into practice, usually without much noticeable effect.
Is it possible that we choose not to define the problem of crime in a way that would allow for its solution? Perhaps a rising crime rate is as necessary to a democratic society as a prospe ous economy. Are we talking about a measurable reality or about a perception of our best loved fears?
Charles Murray is a social scientist who for many years has studied
crime and the strategies for its elimination. Mr. Murray, what exactly
is the crime problem today?
But the statistics do allow us to characterize the general shape of the crime problem. As far as we know, crime has been going down in the very recent past. The Uniform Crime Reports released by the Department of Justice indicate that in 1983, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the rate of "crime index offenses" - the most serious crimes: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft - declined by 7 percent. What accounts for this decline? Are we witnessing the positive effects of changes in our criminal justice practice, or do we owe the improvement to the changing demography of the United States?
It is well known that the great majority of crimes are committed by young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. The arrest rate for violent crimes peaks at age eighteen, and for property crimes at age sixteen. The number of Americans in their late teens and early twenties - the Baby Boom generation- peaked in the 1960s and has begun to decline. But my own view is that there has been a great- er reduction in crime than what we'd expect because of the shrinking number of young men.
Although crime has declined in the past several years, the situation is qualitatively different from that in the 1950s; the crime rate is much, much higher than it was then. During the 1950s - again, given all the ambiguities inher- ent in the numbers - the crime rate appeared relatively stable. But during the 1960s, when the economy was surging and Americans were enjoying huge gains in their standard of living, crime just soared. From 1965 to 1970, for example, homicide increased by 55 percent, aggravated assault increased by 48 percent, and robbery shot up by 124 percent - and this is after adjusting for the population rise. This increase, no matter how we try to account for changes in reporting procedures and so on, is rather mystifying.
During the 1970s, reported crime continued to increase steadily. But
"victimization surveys," which should be a more accurate guide to the
crime rate, suggest that the increases were smaller than the police reports
indicate. However one reads the data, the level of crime today remains
at least at the plateau reached in the 1960s - which means that despite
the recent decline, crime is still drastically greater today than it was
in the 1950s.
But the drug problem points to deeper changes that have occurred during the past thirty years, which together constitute an enormous shift in the values and norms that determine how people behave. During the 1950s people in the inner cities still generally believed that by working hard they could improve their lives - jobs were available; unemployment was much lower than it is today. And television. which is constantly flaunting the wealth of some Americans while rarely giving any hint of the effort it usually takes to acquire such wealth, was not so influential then. Today, inner-city kids are well aware of the symbols of success - the fancy cars and clothes. TV makes sure of that. But they see no way to obtain these things while keeping within the law. What is important in our inner cities today is that you get it, not how you get it. Such an ethic makes crime and violence and social deviance inevitable.
What accounts for this shift in values? We'd have to examine what happened
to the larger society during the past quarter-century to come up with
a real answer. But we do know that in the inner cities kids were growing
up without the guidance they'd had in the past. During the last two decades
the number of single-parent households increased tremendously: by 57 percent
in the 1960s and 71 percent in the 1970s.
The politicians, meanwhile, find it convenient to blame the judges,
and the judges climb into their ivory towers and don't respond. As Mr.
Williams pointed out, numerous social problems contribute to the crime
rate, as do demographic factors. So why do politicians always point to
the judiciary? Because blaming judges is much easier than looking in the
mirror, easier than examining what has really happened to our inner cities.
About five years from now, the children of the Baby Boomers, more than
half of whom were born into non-intact families - the illegitimacy rate
among blacks shot up to 50 percent in 1976 -will become teenagers. These
are the kids that our school system does not seem able to reach or help,
and they are going to make themselves felt as juvenile problems of one
sort or another. To sit back congratulating ourselves on the recent small
drop in crime would be a disaster - especially since, in my view, those
congratulations are undeserved. The victimization surveys show that only
a third of crimes are reported. And crime itself has changed - it has
become more violent, for one thing.
Why is this important? Well, the young criminals we've been talking about usually have their first experience with the system when they commit a petty crime and come before a lower court. Usually their cases drag on until they are dismissed, or they are given unconditional discharges. Very little retributive punishment is handed down in the lower courts. After seeing how it operates at the lower level, these kids become contemptuous of what goes on in the criminal justice system. Of course, as far as the system is concerned, the kids are only little acorns of criminal activity; but out of the acorns grow the huge oaks that cast their shadows over our society.
We should be educating the public, convincing taxpayers that the lower courts are important and that imprisoning violent criminals is not the only function the criminal justice system must perform. The public must come to understand that a probation officer with a caseload of, say, twenty kids instead of 200 really can supervise them and prevent them from com- mitting other offenses. And if we educate the public about the value of intensified supervision of those on probation or parole, we won't need all those prisons.
The public must recognize that even when all the components of the criminal justice system work as they were designed to, they still can't solve the crime problem. There is a limit to what the courts can do. After all, only a small percentage of all crimes result in arrests: 26 percent of reported robberies, 15 percent of reported burglaries, and so on. We can't expect the courts to do everything.
The rate of crime is intolerable - yet we have managed to live with
it at least since the sixties. 1 believe the crime rate actually shot
up much earlier, but in the forties and fifties Americans were so involved
in building a new suburban civilization and abandoning their big cities
that the escalating crime rate went unnoticed. At that time, the police
didn't treat "Negro crime," as it was called, seriously. In New York,
for instance, they noticed it only when it began to move from Harlem,
where there never was any public order - or police presence - to the white
But what is new about this? No one has ever thought it was normal or right. People always say it's "intolerable." But what do we ever do about it? When 1 was a kid in the 1950s, it was fashionable to fire police chiefs when crime was on the rise. Sometime in the 1960s we stopped holding police chiefs responsible for reported increases in crime. Eventually people gave up even criticizing the police.
What is particularly frightening is that American cities now have police
they can't afford and court systems that gobble up hundreds of millions
of dollars a year. But despite all the money they're spending, Americans
do not feel safe. They have grown increasingly frustrated, and are now
demanding the right to kill their fellow citizens. This sentiment, which
Bernhard Goetz helped bring to the surface, is being expressed daily in
If you live in Harlem, USA, you don't park your automobile two blocks from your apartment house because that gives potential muggers an opportunity to get a fix on you. You'd better find a parking space within a block of your house, because if you have to walk two blocks you're not going to make it. In 1950 my grandparents could take a walk in Colonial Park in Harlem at three o'clock in the morning. Today that would be suicide. Most people make sure they're in the house by nine or ten o'clock.
In Harlem, elderly people walking their dogs in the morning cross the
street when they see some young people coming. They try to act casual,
but of course they aren't. They are very aware of those young people -
you can almost feel the tension as the youngsters get closer. And what
those elderly men and women have in the paper bags they're carrying is
not just a pooper scooper - it's a gun. And if those youngsters cross
that street, somebody's going to get hurt - you're going to hear it. Everybody
We cannot continue to ignore the consequences of this fear. The most obvious example of those consequences is the public response to Bernhard Goetz's actions in a New York City subway car. Goetz shot four kids, two of them in the back, and people overwhelmingly approved of what he did.
Another consequence is that people are running away. In Harlem, for example, the population has dropped by over a quarter during the last fifteen years, which is one of the reasons the crime rate has declined. Blacks in Harlem are doing exactly what whites did. Because the government seems unable to protect them, blacks are fleeing their homes.
We now have far more private police officers in the United States than
public police officers. A whole industry has grown up to protect people
and their possessions from crime. Communities sell themselves by boasting
about fortified walls, electronic security, and private police forces.
We seem to accept this, to accept car alarm systems and multiple locks
on our doors.
Let me give an example. In 1979, we had to layoff 200 police officers in Newark. People were very upset; they organized "crime marches" on police headquarters. One group came from the housing projects to meet with me. "Look, Mr. Director," they said, "we know you have lost a lot of men. But we want you to understand that we cannot live under these conditions. We are scared to death, and you've got to help." My response was, "Well, if you look at the statistics, you don't have any crime in your area." People in the projects don't report crime even though a lot occurs there. I told them that they had to tell the police what was going on. "We're afraid to," they said.
We finally persuaded them to meet with us - outside police headquarters - and tell us what was going on. Later we slipped a police officer into a vacant apartment in one of the projects to gather evidence. After we had compiled a book on the criminals, we met with this group again and said, "Look, we know who is committing the crimes. We are going to arrest these people, many of them for relatively minor offenses. You will not have to go to court or give evidence publicly, but you must make clear to the judges privately the problems these people are creating in your neighborhood. Just tell the judges what you told us."
Well, we arrested those guys. We arrested one for possession of a knife.
But the judge, who had been told what was going on, sentenced him to six
months in jail. The people in the projects were ecstatic. That's the kind
of cooperation we need to encourage.
Years ago, "professional criminal" meant petty criminal - someone who pulled stick-ups on the street and that sort of thing. Nowadays, professional criminals kill people. Many mug- gers and robbers kill people as a matter of course. The only way to eliminate this criminal behavior is to change our prisons. The rehabilitation programs in our correctional facilities, as they're now called, are a farce. This society incarcerates hundreds of thousands of semiliterate, unskilled people, but offers them no education, teaches them no salable skill. It is ludicrous to expect someone who was making $1,000 a day as a petty drug dealer to go out and work as a dishwasher for $150 a week. Why not teach them to program a computer, or to fix air conditioners and refrigerators? Many of them can't even read. Why can't we teach them?
I propose that anyone convicted of a felony must learn to read and write
and must acquire a salable skill before he can be released from prison.
Of course, such a requirement would keep prisoners in jail longer, and
we don't have the facilities for that because no one wants to pay taxes
to build new prisons. Well, the state of Kentucky has recently come up
with a way to raise money to build prisons without increasing taxes. Kentucky
now collects a ten-dollar tax from every person convicted of a misdemeanor.
This tax brings in $300,000 a month, and the state is using the money
to modernize existing facilities and build new ones.
Drug addiction is the most obvious. Drugs - not only heroin but all
narcotics - must be kept out of the hands of our children; the penalties
for peddling drugs to children should be extraordinarily harsh. And people
who already have drug habits should be separated from the larger society.
Consider some of the proposals made at this table. Hubert Williams,
a very distinguished police chief, is suggesting that we quarantine drug
users - that we create a gulag, in effect. Preventive detention-imprisonment
without trial-is now legal; now people are talking about creating prison
colonies. Claude Brown is talking about keeping sixteen- and seventeen-
year-old inner-city kids in prison until they can read and write. We can't
teach them in the schools, so we'll send them to prison to learn. What
do we propose to do with the thirty-year- olds?
Over the last twenty years, politicians have had to rationalize their miserable record in coping with crime. Every police chief in America has learned to say that the causes of crime are "really" poverty, degradation, bad housing, unemployment - problems he cannot be expected to solve.
Although they still use poverty as an excuse, politicians now talk more
about drugs. Rather than devote any more resources to courts, police,
prosecutors, and prisons in their own states, politicians blame the State
Department for not getting tough with Turkey or Colombia. Meanwhile, New
York State, which proposes to give its citizens a $2 billion tax cut,
manages to eke out less than 6 percent of its budget for the criminal
We must guarantee that our criminal justice system exacts punishment
with some consistency and reliability. And not only for murder and rape.
Certainly one of the reasons that the crime problem is so bad, and that
people perceive it as being even worse than it is, is that they don't
see any punishment exacted for "small" crimes. The person who is mugged,
who feels the knife against his throat, does not consider that crime small.
A friend of mine was hit on the head with a blunt 'instrument and wound
up in the hospital for two days. But to the police officer who came to
interview her she wasn't "really" hurt - she wasn't in the inten- sive
care unit or in a coma. The officer told her that because she would recover,
hers was not a "high-priority" case. He was telling the truth. But what
does this say to people? Someone must be stabbed through the heart for
the crime to be important. A society cannot give the impres- sion that
a criminal who doesn't gravely injure someone is not worth punishing.
Punishment is important in both a real sense and a symbolic sense: people
must feel that society regards their lives and their property and their
peace of mind as important.
I remember the juvenile delinquents in Chicago whom 1 studied ten years
ago. The average youngster committed for the first time to an institution
in Cook County had thirteen prior arrests. He had been told thirteen times
that it was O. K. to do what he did. If he had been given a small punishment
after his first arrest, and a slightly larger one after his second, society
would at least have done justice. And some kids would have been discouraged
from doing the same thing again.
When we discuss crime, we tend to focus so much on the magnitUde of the penalties, the procedural safeguards, and the state of our prisons that we ignore the fact that public order has broken down. People in this country don't feel safe walking in their own neighborhoods, for God's sake! The overwhelming problem today is one of public order and public safety.
We have to increase the safety of our neighborhoods. And that can be
done. If we simply augmented our police forces we might not eliminate
all crime, but we would create islands of safety where citizens could
begin to live their lives and recover their confidence. If a police officer
patrolled the street that Claude Brown talked about, the old people walking
their dogs wouldn't feel the need to carry guns in paper bags.
Governments have preferred to spend money elsewhere, and they have found
it expedient to invent a whole mythology about the causes of crime. I
think the judge is correct in saying the judiciary has long been treated
as a scapegoat. It's much easier, after all, to make a speech about weak-kneed
judges than it is to provide adequate police protection. It's much easier
to attack the State Department for not pressuring the governments of Turkey
or Colombia than it is to do something about the condition of the schools.
The fundamental issue is whether we have the political will to do something
about crime. That this issue, which by every account is the single greatest
concern of the American people, is not receiving more attention at all
levels of government is absolutely stunning.
ROBERTS: Well, I think there is widespread misunderstanding of what the criminal justice system does. The purpose of the courts is not to fight crime. The courts resolve disputes between the government and a citizen charged with a crime, ensuring that due-process rights are accorded and the Constitution is upheld.
What can the criminal justice system do? It can provide citizens with a certitUde of speedy adjudication and thereby create more respect for the law. It can enlarge the lower courts so they can deal with quality-of-life crimes.
The media are the natural allies of the government and the judiciary In these efforts. They must educate the public about the causes of crime and about the limits imposed by our system of government in combating it. The public must recognize that our Constitution makes it at the very least impractical to eliminate the crime problem overnight by "locking them up and throwing away the key."
The media should inform the public that the police make arrests and
bring charges in only 26 percent of reported robberies, and in only 15
percent of reported burglaries. And the media should turn to the other
branches of government, which prefer to pass the buck to the judiciary,
arid say, "How about doing something about this? How about more police,
for a start?" But the media should make people understand that we cannot
build a criminal justice system ten times the size of the one we have
now. We don't have enough money, and even if we did, I don't think that
would be the way to solve the problem. We can build a courthouse in the
Bronx as big as the Triborough Bridge and staff it with half of the population
of the Bronx, in order to try the other half. But that won't eliminate
crime, and it won't give us the kind of society we want.