The (Imaginary) Plague

Rethinking crime and punishment

My vision of ultimate justice is a scorching rotisserie in hell where I'd roast grant-hungry academics who dress up popular bigotries in scientific white coats.

More than the Universal Soldier, the Universal Scholar is crucial to the never-ending battle for mistruth, injustice and the American rake-off. Early in the century, it was scientific studies on the inherent inferiority and violence of immigrants; during the Cold War, it was about the communist threat. Today's rake-off is on crime and drugs, a $200 billion prison-industrial complex that is burying the new millennium's kinder, gentler prospects as brutally as the Vietnam War did the generation of the 1960s, but with this delicious irony: while the crime lobby terrorizes the public with scenarios of black and Latino gangs, the biggest crime and dope crises are perpetrated by the establishment's own homies—aging baby boomers, from corporate criminals to rising hordes of middle-aged addicts and felons. A large chunk of over-30 America has hit the skids, suffering several million more bad drug and booze trips, untold more busted-up families and stressed communities, and 1 million more arrests for serious crimes per year than 20 years ago. It's another astonishing irony that the recent proliferation of get-tough laws and prisons intended to hold dark-skinned, young thug-lifers instead cage graying druggies.

All of which leads to a question: In what crazy state would the decade's fastest-growing felon and prison cohort also be its most privileged class (Anglos over age 30, a staggering 15,000 new orange-jump-suiters last year), and the only group to show a decline in imprisonment its most oppressed (young blacks)? Answer: California.

No one's theory of how the world works can explain such lunar realities, so it's an exhilarating time for rethinking crime and punishment. Surely, you say, in this land of fiercely individualistic malcontents, there dwell yeasty thinkers—in the tradition of Mencken, Twain and Einstein—arming themselves with bold revelations and striding hallowed halls to attack conventional wisdom. Well, so far it ain't happenin' . . . and don't call me Shirley.

True, like the fabled blind gropers, some progressive scientists have exposed parts of the crime lobby's elephant-sized lie. Frank Zimring's American Youth Violence ripped out the tusks of the ludicrous alarms about coming mobs of "adolescent superpredators." A liberal panel yanked off the trunk in The Real War on Crime, and Elliot Currie's studies of poverty and racism always take a leg or two.

But it's veteran sociologist William Chambliss' Power, Politics & Crime that finally pronounces the phony pachyderm the "gigantic hoax" it is. He begins, "The facts are simple enough: for the last 25 years, the crime rate in the United States has been steadily declining." Yet "Americans are being scared to death of crime. . . . We are becoming a country obsessed with an imaginary plague."

Chambliss indicts the usual suspects: politics and profit. Beginning in 1980, the prison population jumped 500 percent, the drug-war budget leaped sevenfold, spending on crime control exploded to $200 billion per annum, and both parties jockeyed for the spot of Top Demagogue. Chambliss shows how "law-enforcement bureaucracies, especially the FBI and National Institutes of Justice, consistently inflate or bias reports of data on crime" to make "crime seem as threatening as possible." Why? Because the police agencies reporting the numbers also benefit most from manipulating perceptions. Chambliss cites several cities in which cops jimmied stats to depict crime going up or down, as needed. New York City's "miracle" of plummeting murder rates during the early years of the Giuliani administration was accompanied by a countermiraculous 40 percent leap in deaths the police ruled "death by suicide." FBI figures for reported thefts and assaults routinely lump serious, confirmed offenses with far more common attempted or minor allegations. Even if a reported offense turns out to be unfounded or the suspect is later released without charges or acquitted, the FBI instructs agencies to include the offense and arrest in the numbers anyway.

Chambliss confronts the crime lobby's ultraquotables: Republican virtuist William "Moral Poverty" Bennett, the Brookings Institution's John "Superpredator" DiIulio and Northeastern University's James Alan "Teenage Crime Storm" Fox. But like his opponents, Chambliss overstates his case and, in doing so, steps over a few difficult truths whose critical analysis would have actually strengthened his argument. First, it's crucial to deflate the conservative claim that the crime drop at the heart of Chambliss' analysis results from the very anti-crime crackdowns he deplores (such as California's Three Strikes law). In fact, crime began falling before the anti-crime hysteria kicked in. To this end, a second fact Chambliss doesn't examine becomes important: at the height of the lock-'em-up fever of the late 1980s and early '90s, violent crime reversed its decline and exploded. Although all age groups—from grade-schooler to codger —were more violent during this time, authorities focused only on the rise in homicide by teenagers and young adults. They compiled impressive-sounding statistics that purported to show a tripling of teen murder in the 1980s—statistics the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives ultimately debunked: tracing the 2,600 youths arrested for murder in 1992, the center found that only 1,300 were convicted.

But the numbers game continues: in 1998, the FBI reported that youths comprised 12 percent of murder arrestees but committed only 6 percent of murders. The reason: if police arrest five "gang members" at a murder scene but prosecutors charge only one, the FBI still reports the four released as murder suspects, ballooning the "killer youth" stats.

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