Conventional Wisdom Misses Again

Conventional wisdom, along with many sociologists, criminologists, and armchair psychologists know that crime is caused by circumstance- socioeconomic factors are the root of all evil, so to speak.  On the surface, one can see how living in poverty or being in a class of the “underprivileged” could lead to desperation and acts of violence. So far, everyone can agree on this thesis. There’s only one problem: It’s not true.

Crime, particularly violent crime, is at the lowest rate in 40 years, according to the FBI.

There are a few reasons being tossed around to explain this phenomenon, especially since the explanation for crime that we’ve accepted for so long- it’s the economy, stupid- is jarringly wrong. You can now take your pick from a few different explanations. Whether you believe that a cultural shift from crack and cocaine use to marijuana use has caused the crime drop, or the phasing out of lead paint from homes giving rise to a generation free of lead poisoning, or whether society at large has become savvier about self protection, you can find a study that will support your view. There are two reasons that seem to bring up more questions than they answer, however. Increased use of data analysis tools by police departments for one, and longer incarceration terms for the other.

Our society is increasingly data driven. Politicians don’t sneeze without consulting a poll, and nothing is said about business or the economy without a stack of research being dragged out to support it, so there is nothing unusual with police forces nationwide using research and statistical analyses to shape their resource allocations. These measures include pinpointing hotbed areas for crime and focusing police on areas proven to have a higher crime rate. Unfortunately, because many of these areas are in largely minority communities, some groups consider this targeting to be a type of profiling. Which begs the question- if 90% of violent crime in a city occurs in a neighborhood that is 90% black (these statistics are invented for the purpose of illustration), when police focus manpower in that neighborhood, are they targeting the violent crime or the black community? An illuminating answer, in response to those who say that this needs to be stopped because it may be racial profiling, comes from an opinion survey taken in Chicago. Not only is crime down in largely black neighborhoods, but black residents polled in those neighborhoods are less afraid that there will be crime in their neighborhoods. Is it worth risking the appearance of profiling to let all residents- including those of the same race as those being profiled- feel and be safer in their own community?

The other controversial reason for the drop in the crime rate is the increased incarceration rate. On the most basic level, it is true- a person in prison is not committing a violent crime on the street. But there are other factors at work here. Instead of a person going to prison for a short time and coming out a minor celebrity in his “crew” (the word gang doesn’t necessarily apply), he goes to prison for a long time and is forgotten and washed up by the time he comes back to his neighborhood. Instead of seeing prison as a 2 year initiation, a teenager sees prison as a leech that will suck up the best years of his life. With drug dealers and smugglers in prison, there is less supply to spread around getting adolescents hooked. These are good things. However, we can’t let the good things blind us to the other side of the trend to incarcerate for longer terms. While society can benefit greatly from longer prison sentences for violent crimes or repeat offenders, there is little value- and great fiscal cost- to incarcerating first time offenders, or offenders with minor crimes who have violated their probations (depending, of course, on the severity of the probation violation). As with most law and public policy issues, there will need to be a balance- between the benefit of extended incarceration and the responsibility to not over use incarceration as a crime fighting tool.

A reason not offered by the many experts who have been discussing the issue, but is worth considering, is what we will call the Jordan Effect. The race barrier in most sports had been broken decades before Michael Jordan came on the scene in the early 1980s, but Michael Jordan was a mainstream idol in a way no black athlete had been before. By the mid 1980s the idea of black athletes being the norm had spread to all of the major sports- basketball, football, baseball- at both the college and professional levels. The early 1990s saw an explosion of universities like the University of Miami (FL) recruiting almost exclusively from low-income, inner city areas. In addition to the immediate fix of getting those individuals out of a potentially high crime future, these colleges were changing expectations. Imagine a young, black male, not yet a teenager. His father isn’t in the picture, his mother is rarely home because she’s trying to support herself and her son. Without a male mentor or father figure, many youths like this one would turn to the strongest male he saw- often a gang member, drug dealer, or other thug. Enter the Jordan Effect.  Our imaginary boy can now watch broadcast tv and see that Michael Jordan, or Deion Sanders, or even Tiger Woods has made it without drugs or violence. This boy can see that there are large numbers of black athletes in college, playing a sport and getting an education. In short, this boy sees a life outside of the ghetto. A life that doesn’t involve violence or drugs. And this may have more effect on reducing his chance of being a criminal than anything else

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