Crime and Punishment
America's violent world has become measurably less so. For the first time in a decade, crime trends point consistently downward. Experts are uncertain of what the reports presage, or whether the nation may be about to break free of a thirty-year pattern of high crime rates. For now, though, the streets seem safer and people feel a bit more secure.
Overall, violent crime fell 9% in 1996. Murder, armed robbery, rape, and other violent crimes were down 14.5% in New York City, 4% in Los Angeles, and 2% in Detroit and Dallas. Even the rate of juvenile crime, soaring upward through the 1980s and early 1990s, fell slightly, and for the second consecutive year.
Gallup Organization surveys reflect the calming influence of the statistics. In a July 1996 poll, 71% of Gallup's sample thought, wrongly, that crime had gone up in the United States over the past year. In 1992, though, 89% thought the previous twelve months had seen an increase. Nine of every ten in the survey said they felt safe and secure at home at night. And for the first time since 1989, fewer than half, 46%, thought crime had increased in their neighborhood.
Still, anxiety about crime remains high. Isolated macabre events strike deeper chords than abstract trends, however favorable. "One good solid murder of a baby or a rape-murder of a seven-year-old girl will outweigh a ton of statistics," remarked Stanford law professor Lawrence M. Friedman, a historian of crime.
Gallup surveys in 1995 and 1996 placed crime near the top of the list of problems Americans regarded as most important. On Gallup's 1-to-10 "seriousness index" of September 1995, 81 percent of respondents rated crime an 8 or higher — the highest ranking of any problem, exceeding drug abuse, health care, jobs and the economy, the budget deficit, welfare, and education.
"People have always been concerned about crime," wrote Friedman in his book Crime and Punishment in American History. "But there is reason to believe people are more upset about crime today than ever before — more worried, more fearful. They are most afraid of sudden violence or theft by strangers; they feel the cities are jungles; they are afraid to walk the streets at night."
It's Down, But Why?
Two government reports in 1996 documented what crime experts regard as a statistically significant fall in crime rates.
The FBI annual report showed a 4% drop in major crimes in 1995, the fourth consecutive decrease in this index. The report, compiled from police records from around the country, surveys eight serious crimes: murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and etc. Among them only larceny increased by only 1%.
Crime rates were down in every region of the country. Homicides fell 8%, with striking decreases in some of America's murder capitals: in New York City, 1,170 killings in 1995, down from 1,561 in 1994; in Detroit, 475 killings, down from 541; in Houston, 316 killings, down from 375.
The second study, the Department of Justice's survey of crime victims, reported a 9% overall decrease in violent crime in 1995. Analysts say the two reports combined offer persuasive evidence that America has become, at least temporarily, a safer place.
"The striking thing is not just that there has been a decline but the magnitude of the decline," said criminologist Alfred Blumenstein, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Politicians manipulated crime issues for their own purposes in 1996. Bill Clinton attributed the lull to his policies, particularly the 1994 ban on types of assault weapons and federal funding for 100,000 new police officers. With exceptionally bad timing, Bob Dole's luckless campaign stepped up its accusations of Clinton administration softness in crime just when the press and television were trumpeting some of the most encouraging crime news in years.
To most analysts, crime is a local problem. Federal anticrime efforts are for the most part irrelevant or ineffective. America's legal system assigns primary responsibility for most forms of crime to states and localities. Friedman goes further: "Fluctuations in the crime rate are largely independent of changes in the criminal justice system."
Political obfuscation to one side, crime statistics are tricky to interpret, and crime patterns difficult to discern. And it is all but impossible to accurately measure any single cause for a rise or fall in the crime rate.
In part, demographics explains the decrease. The Baby Boom generation is aging, and Baby Boomer criminals' most productive years are behind them. Like athletes, violent criminals operate at their peak between the ages of 15 and 35.
In many cities, more aggressive police tactics have shown results, especially against the drug trade. Innovative prevention programs and tough enforcement of gun laws also have had an impact, though it is more difficult to quantify.
And more of the nation's criminals are in prison for longer stretches. The inmate populations has tripled since 1980. At the end of 1995, there were 1.6 million men and women in prison or jail — one of every 167 Americans. Another 5.3 million were on probation or parole.
The 1994 Clinton crime package has had little or no effect on crime trends. Fewer than a third of the promised 100,000 police officers were hired, trained, and on the beat at the end of 1996. Funding for this key element of the legislation comes slowly, spread over several years, and in small packets. For one example, in September 1996, two years after the bill's passage, Boston received a $3 million grant to hire 40 new officers.
The Next Generation of Criminals
Juvenile violent crime fell slightly overall in 1995, and the juvenile homicide rate dropped for the second straight year. Nevertheless, the long-term trends is ominous. According to a 1995 Justice Department repot, the arrest rate for children 10 to 17 shot up 100% between 1983 and 1992. Juvenile homicides involving handguns increased fivefold between 1984 and 1993.
Demographers project that the population of teenagers will rise 1 percent a year for the next 15 years. The surveys, Attorney General Janet Reno said in 1995, are thus "a road map to the next generation of crime." Some 2.7 million juveniles were arrested in 1994. Males 12 to 24 make up 8% of the population. But they account for a quarter of all homicide victims and nearly half of all murders.
Still more recent reports suggest that programs to deter juvenile crime may be having some impact. Boston and New York City, for example, have launched aggressive programs to take guns out of the hands of juveniles. The 1995 report, issued in mid-1996, showed violent crimes by young people down by 2.9 percent.
In one social worker's view, the cumulative horrific effects of violent crime and punishment may finally be making a lasting impression on the young. "I think some of the glamour of being a thug, of walking around with a gun, is being removed, because people 13, 14, and 15 years old have seen so many of their friends or relatives being killed or going to prison," said Geoffrey Canada, who heads a school and neighborhood program for New York City youth.
Rising juvenile crime has promoted most states to overhaul their juvenile justice systems. More child criminals are being tried in adult courts, where they receive longer sentences and serve them under harsher conditions.
Gallup surveys show strong support for tougher penalties for juvenile offenders. In a 1994 poll, 60% favored the death sentence for child murderers. (In 1957, only 11 percent favored execution for juvenile killers.) Half the sample said first-time juvenile offenders should face the same punishment as adult first-timers. And 80% said repeat juvenile criminals should be dealt with as harshly as adult repeaters. Only around a third said there should be more emphasis on rehabilitating rather than punishing young criminals.
English common law traditionally held that children younger than seven could not be charged with a crime, and that children 7 to 14 were protected by a "presumption of infancy" — the notion that there can be no criminal intent in the young.
This view has governed approaches to older child criminals. The reformer Jane Addams established the first juvenile court in Chicago, in 1899. Proceedings were confidential, punishments discretionary. The guiding principle was that children could be reformed, rehabilitated, and set on a law-respecting course to adulthood.
With the juvenile crime epidemic, that principles has been abandoned in many states. "The thinking behind the juvenile court, that everything has to be done in the best interest of the Child, is from a bygone era," said Patrica L. West, director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice. Virginia and other states now requires accused killers fourteen and older to be tried as adults. Other laws expand judges' authority to transfer juveniles to adult court for armed robbery, burglary, and other serious crimes.
Critics say such responses ignore what they contend are the underlying causes of juvenile crime — poverty, fractured families, lack of opportunity. They say treating child criminals as grown-ups merely lower the age of adulthood. It does nothing to correct the failures of society that create young felons. Critics note, too, that violent child criminals do not automatically grow into repeat felons, and that their cases should thus be treated with subtlety. "You've got hardcore 14-year-olds and 17-year-olds that would never do this again. Discretion is what judges are paid to exercise," said David Kopel, an expert on violence with the Independence Institute of Golden, Colorado.
More often, the authorities respond to the epidemic by meeting violent crime with harsh punishment. California now prosecutes as adults three-quarters of teen-quarters of teenagers charged with murder.
"I'm not interested in legislating out childhood," said Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti. "My concern is that juvenile crime has been rising unacceptably fast, and kids learn they can get away with it because there is not real punishment for the first few crimes."
No one can say with certainty if tougher approaches deter juvenile crime. "Jailing youths with adult felons under Spartan conditions will merely produce more street gladiators," criminologist John DiIulio Jr. Predicts. He and others argue that the problem begins in childhood. Children who suffer from neglect and abuse are far more likely to become delinquent. For many at-risk children, the answer is a responsible adult presence for protection, supervision, and guidance.
Florida tried 7,000 youths in adult courts in 1995, more than all other states combined. A preliminary study found youths punished as adults there had higher rates of relapse, with more serious crimes, than teens who served time in juvenile institutions.
Some Programs That Work
In some big cities, gun control and curfew programs appear to have reduced juvenile crime.
In Boston, a pilot program tracks black-market gun sales to children. (It is illegal under federal law and in most states to sell handguns to juveniles.) Coupled with aggressive policy tactics, the computer tracking program scored a remarkable initial success: no young people in Boston were killed by gunfire during the first six months of 1996.
In a Clinton administration initiative, policies chiefs and prosecutors from Boston and 16 other cities agreed to provide information on every gun they seize from a juvenile. The data are fed into a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms computer. Gun sellers, when identified, are prosecuted.
"This allows us to isolate the small number of dealers who are a faucet of firearms to minors," said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "We will never become a gun-free America for kids, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
In New York City, authorities traced 4,000 seized guns to one store in Alabama. Thirty-five people were arrested for importing the handguns into the city and selling them there, according to the ATF.
Curfew programs for teens appear to be working in several cities. They are politically popular, too; both Clinton and Dole called for teen curfews during the 1996 campaign. Still, analysts suggest they are at best a short-term solution, and that they tend to miss the mark anyway because most juvenile crime occurs after school, from 3 to 6 P.M. "The problem with curfew laws is that most kids, the good, the bad, and the tired, are asleep at midnight," notes Fox.
The Justice Department says some form of curfew is in effect in 150 or so of America's 200 largest cities. Dallas in May 1994, imposed a curfew for all children 17 and younger. The Dallas police say violent juvenile crime there is down 30%.
"These figures tell us that the curfew works," police spokesman Jim Chandler said. "Fewer kids on the streets mean fewer crimes and fewer victims."
The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged curfews as a violation of children's freedom of speech and assembly. The courts, however, have generally upheld curfew ordinances.
Guns, Police, and Prisons
There are no solutions to crime, only more or less effective strategies for containing it. During the 1990s, the most insistent voices have called for deterrence and punishment: more police, tougher laws, longer sentences, more prisons.
Opinion seems to favor the sterner approach. Gallup surveys have tracked rising support for the death penalty, more spending on police and prisons, longer sentence for repeat felons, and other tough crime-control measures.
Gallup samples also strongly support two 1994 gun-control measures, the assault-weapons ban and the Brady Law, which requires background checks for gun purchases and a five-day wait for a permit. In a 1995 survey, respondents thought America's gun laws should be even further strengthened.
The United States already has more firearms laws than any other country, and more firearms, too — an estimated 220 million guns of all types in citizens' hands, according to the ATF. Firearms claim 35,000 lives a year by design or accident. Guns are used in two-thirds of all homicides in the United States.
In Massachusetts, state officials tried in 1996 to use the state's defective handguns known as "Saturday night specials." A joint Boston Police-ATF study found that these handguns account for seven of every ten firearms traced in U.S. crimes.
A new Texas law, on the other hand, seems to encourage citizens to rove about armed. The measure, which took effect in January 1996, allows Texans to carry concealed weapons to better defend themselves against criminals. Other states are considering similar legislation, with a strong prod that opposes almost all restrictions on firearms.
Initial studies suggested the 1994 Brady law denied gun permits to at least 45,000 felons in its first year. Presumably, the law prevented at least some crimes those felons might have committed. In the short term, though, police, courts, and prisons probably have had a greater impact on crime rates.
In New York City, beat cops began to take greater notice of minor crimes, on the theory that major crimes suspects be caught in the net. The city's falling murder rate suggests these tactics may be paying off. During the first six months of 1996, in fact, no murders were reported in Central Park.
New York police also targeted the drug trade in 1996. A few hundred drug organizations are suspected of causing most of the city's crime. Disrupt those organizations, police believed, and crime rates would go down.
The department assigned 1,200 additional officers in 1996 to high-crime neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Federal authorities, patrol officers, detectives, and narcotics investigators worked in teams to break up neighborhood drug organizations, attacking middle- and upper-level dealers together with the usual street-level suspects.
The police claimed dramatic results, though they expected many bankrupt dealers to reorganize eventually and reappear in new locales. "Drug organizations are like cockroaches," Police Commissioner Howard Safir said. "We need to spray them constantly." In a few months. Police identified and put out of business more than 50 drug organizations. Not coincidentally, crime rates in the 14 target precincts fell 20% in the first half of 1996, close to double the overall rate of decline.
One consequence of the war on drugs, in New York City and elsewhere, is a sharp upward spike in America's prison population. Along with Russia, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Jails and prisons serve four purposes: incarceration, deterrence, retribution or expiation, and reformation. Obviously, an imprisoned felon can do little or no harm to anyone on the outside. Experts disagree on prison's deterrent effect; most believe the threat of punishment has satisfied society's urge for retribution. They are unpleasant placed in which to be shut up for ten years or so. As for reformation, few would argue that prisons turn out improved citizens, or even comparatively docile ones.
At $40 billion to $50 billion a year, prisons and jails are massively expensive to operate. Estimates for keeping one felon behind bars for a year range from $25,000 to $33,000. For the first time, California in 1996 spent more to build and run prisons than it spent on its pubic university system.
"Today we are giving the equivalent of a $33,000 scholarship to more than 1.5 million of the worst types of people. We cut back on teachers, welfare, medical care for the poor. We lay off doctors and nurses, social workers, and counselors. But we hire prison guards to beat the band."
The Death Penalty
Opinion in recent years has flowed strongly toward support for the death penalty. In 1936, a Gallup survey found 62% of respondents favored capital punishment for killers. By 1996, support had declined to 42%. Over the next three decades, though, sentiment for the death penalty rose with the crime rate. In a 1995 poll, more than three-quarters, 77%, favored the death penalty for murderers.
In Furman v. Georgia in 1972, the United States Court invalidated every death penalty law in the United States. Almost overnight, Georgia and other states wrote new legislation to meet the court's constitution tests. The high court eventually accepted a redrawn Georgia statute that obligated judges to consider aggravating circumstances, such as premeditation or a prior murder problems or the influence of alcohol or drugs, before passing a capital sentence.
The Georgia law launched an era of seemingly endless appeals from America's death rows. Retrials, appeals, writs of habeas corpus, stays, and other legal maneuvers extended the average wait between condemnation and execution to nearly eight years. California reinstated the death penalty in 1977 but provided no work for the state's executioner until 1992.
A June 1996 Supreme Court ruling in another Georgia case may speed the journey from death row to the execution room. The court rejected a Georgia inmate's claim that a new federal law designed to curb frivolous and expensive appeals eroded the judiciary's authority. The ruling brings judgment day closer for 3,000 convicted killers on U.S. death rows.
The Anti-terrorism and Effective Act of 1996 restricted death row inmates' ability to file habeas corpus petitions. It gave convicts only one year in which to file such appeals, and it limited them to one appeal. Inmates rebuffed on the first try must now obtain permission from a three-judge panel to proceed with further appeals.
The new law will doubtlessly curb the costs of capital punishment. Still, whatever its merits as a deterrent, the death penalty is unlikely ever to be a bargain. Even life in prison may be cheaper. In a 1993 study of North Carolina murder trials, Philip J. Cook and Donna B. Slawson found that it cost double the amount to try, convict, sentence, and execute a killer as to secure a first-degree murder conviction with a prison term of twenty years to life.
"Common sense says that it's cheaper to supply a few jolts of electricity than to shell out the equivalent of tuition at Harvard for incarceration for the next twenty years," Cook and Slawson wrote. "But when all the costs are weighed, just the opposite is true."
In the end, for most supporters of the death penalty, eye-for-an-eye justice is more important than cost or even deterrence. "I don't look at it as a money saver or money waster or whatever," New York state legislator Anthony S. Seminerio said. "I don't care if it costs more. I don't care, as long as the guy pays with his life."