August 28, 2003
Major crime in the United States is at a 30-year-low, and the Christian Science Monitor can't understand it.
In a story this week headlined "A drop in violent crime that's hard to explain," the Monitor's Alexandra Marks reported on the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the US Justice Department. According to the BJS, there were 23 million instances of violent and property crime last year -- 48 percent fewer than the 44 million recorded in 1973. (The numbers don't include murder, which is measured separately by the FBI.) In just the past 10 years, the violent crime rate has plummeted by a stunning 54 percent, from 50 crimes per 1,000 US residents in 1993 to 23 per 1,000 in 2002.
The plunge in serious crime is pervasive; it crosses racial, ethnic, and gender lines and shows up in every income group and region. But welcome as they are, the new data are only the latest extension of a downward trend that first appeared in the 1980s, not long after the nationwide crackdown on crime got underway. The dramatic drop in criminal activity followed an equally dramatic boom in prison construction and a sharp surge in incarceration rates. The conclusion is obvious: Stricter punishment has led to lower crime.
But it isn't obvious to the Christian Science Monitor. Marks's story -- which begins, "Unexpectedly, the national crime rate has taken another dip" -- makes no mention of prisons or prisoners. It claims that criminologists are actually "quick to list the reasons" why crime should be going up, such as the soft economy, cuts in local government spending, and the diversion of police from walking neighborhood beats to guarding public facilities against terror.
The only explanation Marks can offer for the continuing reduction in crime comes from Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, who speculates that post-9/11, Americans may be treating each other more considerately. "The only thing I can think of," Blumstein says, "is some sense of cohesion that's emerging as a result of the terrorist threat. . . . Other than that, I don't see much that should be contributing to this decline."
To be fair, Marks and the Monitor aren't the only ones with a blind spot for the nexis between crime and punishment. In the Associated Press story on the Justice Department data, there is no mention of incarceration until the 11th paragraph. "Some criminologists," the AP grudgingly notes, "say tougher prison sentences and more prisons are key factors." None of those criminologists is quoted; instead, the point is dismissed as "political rhetoric" by the Justice Policy Institute, an anti-imprisonment advocacy group.
No one disputes that more criminals are being locked up in this country or that they are spending more time behind bars. The Justice Department reported in July that the nation's prison population had reached an all-time high of 2.1 million in 2002, with violent criminals accounting for most of the increase. At year's end, 1 of every 143 US residents was in a state or federal prison or jail.
That is a much higher level of imprisonment than is found in other modern democracies, a fact liberal critics point to it as evidence of American vengefulness. "The price of imprisoning so many Americans is too high . . . 5 to 10 times as high as in many other industrialized nations," admonished The New York Times in a recent editorial. "Locking the door and throwing away the key may make for good campaign sound bites, but it is a costly and inhumane crime policy."
Actually, keeping known criminals locked up is a sensible and effective crime policy. The Times laments that it costs $22,000 per year to keep each inmate in custody, but that is not an exorbitant price for preventing millions of annual murders, rapes, armed robberies, and assaults. The cost to society of a single armed robbery has been estimated at more than $50,000; multiply that by the 12 or 13 attacks the average released prisoner commits per year, and $22,000 an inmate looks like quite a bargain.
While crime has been tumbling in the United States, it has been soaring elsewhere. "Crime has recently hit record highs in Paris, MadriD, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Toronto, and a host of other major cities," Eli Lehrer wrote in the Weekly Standard last year.
"In a 2001 study, the British Home Office found violent and property crime increased in the late 1990s in every wealthy country except the United States. American property crime rates have been lower than those in Britain, Canada, and France since the early 1990s, and violent crime rates in the European Union, Australia, and Canada have recently begun to equal and even surpass those in the United States. Even Sweden, once the epitome of cosmopolitan socialist prosperity, now has a crime victimization rate 20 percent higher than the United States."
Not every inmate belongs in prison. Petty drug offenders, for example, may be better suited to intense probation and drug treatment than to jail. But on the whole, America's policy of locking up large numbers of criminals for long terms is doing just what it was meant to do: making us safer. Maybe Europe and Canada should follow suit.