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It's The Criminals, Stupid! 3

Criminals create crimes - but crimes create criminals.

By Will Offensicht  |  October 19, 2011

The first article in this series discussed a Harvard study which appeared in Science News.  The study pointed out that a disproportionate amount of crime and imprisonment comes from relatively few neighborhoods which have become "incarceration hot spots."

Chicago crime data for 1990 to 1995 show that a large majority of prison and jail populations came from two poor, black sections of the city.

Responding to the liberal mantra that blighted neighborhoods cause crime, housing projects which had been built at great public expense were torn down and replaced at even greater expense.  Unfortunately, building nice new buildings didn't change the people who'd lived in the old buildings.

But between 2000 and 2005, the geographic location of each incarceration hot spot in Chicago shifted slightly to the southwest as former public housing residents sought new homesIncarceration rates in the two new hot spots remained about the same as those in the old ones from a decade earlier, Sampson said.  [emphasis added]

Breaking up the housing projects doesn't cut crime, it simply scatters criminals to other neighborhoods.

The Harvard study also observed that not all poor neighborhoods become "incarceration hot spots."  Crime remains low when adults "act as mentors to local children and otherwise intervene on behalf of the common good."

The second article showed that government policies for managing subsidized housing make it impossible for anyone to be a neighbor and act on behalf of the common good.  The federal government brings suit against cities which try to cut back subsidized housing because of high crime rates.  These lawsuits have created a "right to misbehave" because it's become so difficult to throw thugs out of government housing.

Why So Much Crime?

Where does all that crime come from in the first place?  The Economist reviewed "A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America" by Ernest Drucker.  Mr. Drucker is an epidemiologist who studies how diseases spread from one person to another and from one neighborhood to another.  He applied the statistical and data analysis tools of his profession to study how crime spreads in American cities.

The origin of our soaring prison population is clear - it's a by-product of our "war on drugs."

In May 1973 New York passed a set of laws that required judges to impose sentences of 15 years to life imprisonment for anyone convicted of selling two ounces (57 grams) or possessing four ounces of “narcotic drugs”—usually cocaine, heroin or marijuana. They came to be known as the Rockefeller laws, after New York’s then-governor, Nelson Rockefeller. They sent New York’s prison population soaring, from an average of fewer than 75 inmates per 100,000 New Yorkers between 1880 and 1970 to five times that rate by the end of the century. Between 1987 and 1997 drug cases accounted for 45% of new prisoners.  [emphasis added]

Drug use increased in New York during the 1960's.  The Rockefeller laws grew out of politicians' desire to be "tough on crime."  States like California also got tough on crime.  Like Scragged, Mr. Drucker argues that the result has been a public policy disaster.

The impact of putting so many more people in jail has been particularly severe in black neighborhoods.  One in every 11 black adults are under the supervision of a department of corrections compared with 1 in 45 whites.  A quarter of the children in much of Harlem and the South Bronx have had at least one parent imprisoned; these children are far more likely to end up in prison than children whose parents haven't been in jail.

The Harvard study described in the first two articles in this series showed that responsible adults can do a great deal to reduce crime in a poor neighborhood by interacting with children and doing other neighborly things to promote the common good.  This isn't possible when so many adults constantly cycle in and out of jail.

Nearly half of all arrests in Harlem and the South Bronx are for loitering, vagrancy, drug use, or drug possession.  Only 3% of the arrests are for violent crimes.

These low-level arrests are "seeds for most imprisonments."  The suspect is fingerprinted, jailed until time to see a judge, and given the start of a criminal record.  Even a short period of being locked up usually ends whatever employment the person may have had.  The resulting criminal record makes it that much more difficult to find another job.

The Economist agrees with Mr. Drucker's main point:

Treating drug addiction as a public-health problem (emphasizing treatment and harm-reduction) rather than a crime to be punished would go a long way towards making America’s poor and minority communities stabler and better. It would also save taxpayers money. All that is lacking is political will.

They didn't point out the huge vested interests in our current system which make change difficult.  Unionized prison guards are major supporters of "get tough" laws which increase the need for prison guards.  Police departments keep substantial amounts of money they confiscate on suspicion of drug dealing.  The anti-poverty bureaucracy would be distressed if poverty went down; if they ever won the "war on poverty," agencies would deserve smaller budgets.

No politician seems to want to be considered "soft on crime."  Nobody wants to suggest that our drug laws, which have enriched drug gangs to the point that they can afford to take on the Government of Mexico, be reformed.  A recent initiative to legalize marijuana failed in California, of all places.

Our drug laws not only swell our prison population at a cost of billions, they also destroy neighborhoods by reducing residents' ability to intervene for the public good.

It's true that criminals commit crimes, but what our society defines as crime has a lot to do with it.  In many cases, our laws make criminals out of people who'd otherwise be able to hold jobs and support themselves.

Maybe it isn't the "criminals" after all?  Maybe our national obsession to create so many crimes, actions which never were criminal in time gone by, gets people started on a path from which there's little chance of escape.  Is this really the way our "justice" system ought to work?