Smart on Crime

CRIME.  We as a society keep wringing our hands about it all the time in the media, politics, and elsewhere, but still keep falling short of how best to deal with this ancient yet persistent social problem that has plagued humanity for millennia.  There are many types of crime, with "white-collar" and corporate crime being the biggest and costliest elephant in the room, of course.  But when most people talk about crime, they are really talking about "blue-collar" or street crime, with violent crime being given the most prominent consideration despite being a small fraction of overall crime.  That is because physical violence and its consequences is more visible and carries more weight in the public consciousness, followed by property crime as a close second.

Many theories have existed about crime and how to control and prevent it.  Root-cause theory emerged in the 1960s, namely that the we should focus on the real root causes such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, racism, etc., but unfortunately back then that theory lacked sufficient nuance and detail.  Then came the "tough on crime" thesis that (re-)emerged in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, namely that heavy-handed police crackdowns and mass incarceration were the real solutions, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  While that perhaps acted as a sort of "tourniquet", as Mark Kleiman would put it, once the proverbial bleeding has stopped (or slowed to a trickle), it can do more harm than good if maintained indefinitely or applied willy-nilly, just like an actual tourniquet.  Crime has indeed plummeted since the early 1990s for a variety of reasons (most notably a decrease in lead poisoning, along with demographic factors) but there is still plenty of it, and we clearly can't just jail our way out of what remains of America's crime problem.

In fact, in spite of (or perhaps because of) America's notorious mass incarceration (we are 5% of the world's population but have a whopping 25% of the world's prisoners), the best studies have found that, at least at currently high levels, the net marginal effect of incarceration on crime rates is likely zero or close to zero.  And on top of that, it is ridiculously expensive as well, using up resources that could better be spent elsewhere.  And of course the racial and class disparities that essentially create a permanent underclass are impossible to ignore.  That is not to say that some truly dangerous criminals don't need to be locked up--they do--but the USA is clearly doing it excessively.  So what else can we do instead?

As Kleiman points out, it is well-known that the swiftness and certainty of punishment are far more effective and important than severity in terms of its deterrent effect.  That is certainly true, and that needs to be taken into account when deciding what sort of punishment is appropriate.  But surely there is something else that is deeper and more fundamental than punishment.

In recent decades, economic inequality as measured by the Gini Index has risen dramatically under the toxic and corrosive influence of neoliberalism since Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in the UK.  Also, the poverty rate has also begun rising again since its record low reached in the early 1970s, and especially since 2000--and even that doesn't tell the full story as it is based on an outdated metric that generally underestimates poverty.  And the infamous War on (people who use a few particular) Drugs has clearly had a corrosive effect on society, particularly for communities of color.

And guess what?  Inequality is very strongly correlated with crime, well over and above any effects of poverty per se, which appears to be only weakly correlated in the aggregate.  This is particularly true for violent crime, especially for the most violent crime of all, homicide.  And very much research bears this out quite well, with inequality explaining roughly HALF of the variance in violent crime, more so than any other variable in fact.  Rodger Malcolm Mitchell uses the term Gap Psychology to describe this phenomenon:  wider Gaps between the have-mores and have-lesses tend to increase crime, violence, and just about any other social problem, while the reverse is true for narrower Gaps.   Thus, the most straightforward way to reduce crime would be to narrow the Gap, for example by implementing Mitchell's long-advocated Ten Steps to Prosperity, which would effectively tackle both poverty and inequality and would not cost (non-rich) taxpayers one cent.  Note as well that one of the Ten Steps, an Economic Bonus for every man, woman, and child in America, is a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI), and that alone has in some studies been shown to reduce crime by as much as 40%.  Combine it with the other nine steps and we clearly have the potential for a historic and massive drop in crime without the very real drawbacks of mass incarceration and excessively overzealous policing.

Ending the War on (people who use a few particular) Drugs would also likely reduce both crime and incarceration even further.  While full legalization of all drugs is a political non-starter and may perhaps have unintended consequences if done blindly and haphazardly, legalizing cannabis is an excellent start, as is adopting the vaunted Portuguese model of decriminalization for the other substances in the meantime.  Victimless crime laws generally do more harm than good, and as a rule, the fewer such laws we have in place, the better.

As for gun violence in particular, Rodger Malcolm Mitchell does not mince words when discussing solutions: 1) Interpret the Second Amendment properly, particularly the part where it says "well-regulated", 2) Federalize gun manufacture and importation, 3) Apply the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) law to street gangs, both at the federal and state levels, 4) Additional penalites for gun carry during a felony, and 5) Tax gun ownership, and heavily.  (The TSAP would also add a fairly heavy excise tax on bullets as well.)  True, there are no total solutions, only partial ones.  And like all forms of evil, gun violence and gang violence will inevitably return unless we stamp out the underlying conditions that cause it in the first place (see the preceding paragraphs above).  But to deny the power of partial solutions is the very essence of a famous logical fallacy, known as the Nirvana fallacy.

As for policing, it is long past time for us to move beyond "broken windows" and towards strategies that are know to reduce crime without jeopardizing relations with the community or infringing on individual rights.  Sweating the small stuff or being overzealous can often backfire, and if we are to retain anything from the "broken window" theory, it is that it is best to take it literally as is applies to the built environment, not to the people living there.

Innovative, community-based programs should be given a chance.

And of course the TSAP and Twenty-One Debunked have also advocated other things as well, such as getting the lead out, raising the taxes on alcoholic beverages, lowering the drinking age to 18, South Dakota's 24/7 Program (for alcohol) and Hawaii's HOPE Program (for hard drugs), "pulling levers", "low-arrest crackdowns", tackling homelessness with a "Housing First" approach, better mental health care, providing free birth control, improved public education, and various other things as well.  All of these should be done, as the combined effect is greater than any of these things alone.  But without tackling poverty and inequality, everything else is basically a sideshow.  Let that sink in.

Oh, and getting the lead out also seems to work wonders to take a major bite out of crime, by the way.  And there is still a lot of unfinished business in that regard, with Flint, MI being the tip of the iceberg.

We have been trying to get "tough on crime" for decades now.  It is long past time to get SMART on crime instead.  So what are we waiting for?

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, I don't see the prospect of most of these policies be fufilled. Neoliberlism demands stark economic inequality such as seen in Chile or Brazil. Shareholders make money from people imprisoned in private prisons, namely African Americans and Hispanic people. A great way to end the War on Drugs is to prohibit private prisons. The burden of keeping people for using drugs would be high and then the government would have to implement the Portuguese model on drug usage. I don't advocate drug usage. Laissez-faire capitalism demands that the upper class have no interest in their fellow people in the lower classes. This is the way the world has been made.