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Posts Tagged ‘Crime is a routine behavior

We are all criminals: Given the proper conditions and temptations…

Question:  Of the two explanations that  predict having a predisposition to criminal behavior and actually committing a crime, which alternative is the most plausible?

First explanation: The group of adolescents living in a clean and stable neighborhood, an active and sensible community, but whose family environment is violent and crude, is more predictive that it will eventually commit a higher rate of criminal activities than other situations and conditions;

Second alternative: The group of adolescents living in family environment that practice standard moral values and exhibit strong moral support, but is surrounded with violent and crude neighborhood would actually exhibit a higher rate of criminal acts.

It is of no use following the conventional argument that family is the cornerstone of real behavioral actions: A family provides a strong defensive nature against criminal behavior in the first few years of upbringing, but it is the daily environment and peer pressures that offer the catalytic situations for committing an actual criminal act.

In social science, a cause sought is usually a muddle found. In life as we experience it, a crisis resolved is causality established. If a pill cures a headache, we do not ask too often if the headache might have gone away by itself.

All this ought to make the publication of Franklin E. Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” a very big event. Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law, has spent years crunching the numbers of what happened in New York in the context of what happened in the rest of America. One thing he teaches us is how little we know.

The 40% drop across the continent—indeed, there was a decline throughout the Western world— took place for reasons that are as mysterious in suburban Ottawa as they are in the South Bronx.

Zimring shows that the usual explanations, including demographic shifts, simply can’t account for what must be accounted for. This makes the international decline look slightly eerie: blackbirds drop from the sky, plagues slacken and end, and there seems no absolute reason that societies leap from one state to another over time.

Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence: it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.

The change didn’t come from resolving the deep pathologies that the right-wing parties fixated on—from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for the underlying causes pointed to by the left: injustice, discrimination, poverty. Nor were there any “Presto!” effects arising from secret patterns of increased abortions or the like.

For example, New York City didn’t get much richer; it didn’t get much poorer. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect.

There was, Zimring writes, a great difference between the slogans and the substance of the time. (Arrests for “visible” nonviolent crime—e.g., street prostitution and public gambling—mostly went down through the period.)

Instead, small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime significantly, (but could not account for the sharp drop). In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.”

The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.” This was not so much racial since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already.

Minority communities, Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced.

The poor pay more and get more” is Zimring’s way of putting it. He believes that a “light” program of stop-and-frisk could be less alienating and just as effective, and that by bringing down urban crime stop-and-frisk had the net effect of greatly reducing the number of poor minority kids in prison for long stretches.

Zimring insists, plausibly, that he is offering a radical and optimistic rewriting of theories of what crime is and where criminals are, not least because it disconnects crime and minorities.

“In 1961, 26% of New York City’s population was minority African-American or Hispanic. Now, they constitute half of New York’s population is—and what that does in an enormously hopeful way is to destroy the rude assumptions of supply side criminology“, (meaning the conservative theory of crime that claimed that social circumstances produced a certain net amount of crime waiting to be expressed; if you stopped it here, it broke out there. The only way to stop crime was to lock up all the potential criminals. In truth, criminal activity seems like most other human choices—a question of contingent occasions and opportunity.

Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes. Close down the open drug market in Washington Square, and it does not automatically migrate to Tompkins Square Park. It just stops, or the dealers go indoors, where dealing goes on but violent crime does not.

And, in a virtuous cycle, the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime. When your friends are no longer doing street robberies, you’re less likely to do them. Zimring said: “Remember, nobody ever made a living mugging. There’s no minimum wage in violent crime.”

In a sense, Zimring argues, it’s recreational, part of a life style: “Crime is a routine behavior; it’s a thing people do when they get used to doing it.” And therein lies its essential fragility.

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either.

Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes.

Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison. The logic is self-evident if we just transfer it to the realm of white-collar crime: we easily accept that there is no net sum of white-collar crime waiting to happen, no inscrutable generation of super-predators produced by Dewar’s-guzzling dads and scaly M.B.A. profs…

If you stop an embezzlement scheme here on Third Avenue, another doesn’t naturally start in the next office building. White-collar crime happens through an intersection of pathology and opportunity; getting the S.E.C. busy ending the opportunity is a good way to limit the range of the pathology.

Social trends deeper and less visible to us may appear as future historians analyze what went on. Something other than policing may explain things—just as the coming of cheap credit cards and State lotteries probably did as much to weaken the Mafia’s Five Families in New York, who had depended on loan-sharking and numbers running, as the F.B.I. could. It is at least possible, for instance, that the coming of the mobile phone helped drive drug dealing indoors, in ways that helped drive down crime.

It may be that the real value of hot spot and stop-and-frisk was that it provided a single game plan that the police believed in. As military history reveals, a bad plan is often better than no plan, especially if the people on the other side think it’s a good plan. But one thing is sure: social epidemics, of crime or of punishment, can be cured more quickly than we might hope with simpler and more superficial mechanisms than we imagine. Throwing a Band-Aid over a bad wound is actually a decent strategy, if the Band-Aid helps the wound to heal itself.

Which leads, further, to one piece of radical common sense: since prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime, very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime. Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily.

For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years?

It seems likely that anyone for whom those sanctions aren’t sufficient is someone for whom no sanctions are ever going to be sufficient. Zimring’s research shows clearly that, if crime drops on the street, criminals coming out of prison stop committing crimes. What matters is the incidence of crime in the world, and the continuity of a culture of crime, not some “lesson learned” in prison.

At the same time, the ugly side of stop-and-frisk can be alleviated. To catch sharks and not dolphins, Zimring’s work suggests, we need to adjust the size of the holes in the nets—to make crimes that are the occasion for stop-and-frisks real crimes, not crimes like marijuana possession.

When the New York City police stopped and frisked kids, the main goal was not to jail them for having pot but to get their fingerprints, so that they could be identified if they committed a more serious crime. But all over America the opposite happens: marijuana possession becomes the serious crime. The cost is so enormous, though, in lives ruined and money spent, that the obvious thing to do is not to enforce the law less but to change it now.

Dr. Johnson said once that manners make law, and that when manners alter, the law must, too. It’s obvious that marijuana is now an almost universally accepted drug in America: it is not only used casually (which has been true for decades) but also talked about casually on television and in the movies (which has not).

One need only watch any stoner movie to see that the perceived risks of smoking dope are not that you’ll get arrested, but that you’ll get in trouble with a rival frat or look like an idiot to women. The decriminalization of marijuana would help end the epidemic of imprisonment.

The rate of incarceration in most other rich, free countries, whatever the differences in their histories, is remarkably steady. In countries with Napoleonic justice or common law or some mixture of the two, in countries with adversarial systems and in those with magisterial ones, whether the country once had brutal plantation-style penal colonies, as France did, or was once itself a brutal plantation-style penal colony, like Australia, the natural rate of incarceration seems to hover right around a hundred men per hundred thousand people. (That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get lower in rich, homogeneous countries—just that it never gets much higher in countries otherwise like our own.)

It seems that one man in every thousand once in a while does a truly bad thing. All other things being equal, the point of a justice system should be to identify that thousandth guy, find a way to keep him from harming other people, and give everyone else a break.

Epidemics seldom end with miracle cures. Most of the time in the history of medicine, the best way to end disease was to build a better sewer and get people to wash their hands. “Merely chipping away at the problem around the edges” is usually the very best thing to do with a problem; keep chipping away patiently and, eventually, you get to its heart.

To read the literature on crime before it dropped is to see the same kind of dystopian despair we find in the new literature of punishment: we’d have to end poverty, or eradicate the ghettos, or declare war on the broken family, or the like, in order to end the crime wave.

The truth is, a series of small actions and events ended up eliminating a problem that seemed to hang over everything. There was no miracle cure, just the intercession of a thousand smaller sanitary facilities. Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime.

At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care.” End of quote

What made violent crime drop sharply in the last two decades? I decided to re-edit an article that I posted a while ago.

Where have all the criminals gone?

In the half of the century, incidence of violent crimes in the USA was fairly steady. Why? Infantile mortality was very high due to lack of vaccination and treatments for curable diseases.  All those unwanted children from single parent families died prematurely. and the pool of potential criminals, living in poor and uneducated families and in poor neighborhoods was manageable.

By 1960, violent crime rate increased steadily, so did the economy and the employment rates. During the period of the civil rights movement, the 60′s and early 70′s, conviction rates declined, as were sentences duration for most of the crimes committed. Why? Judges and political climate didn’t want to be labelled racist or believing in apartheid (fear of being viewed as racist and backward) since more crimes, proportionally, were committed by Blacks and Hispanics living in poor neighborhoods.

Between 1980-2000, the period witnessed a 15-fold increase in the number of convicts on drug charges, and sentence duration increased accordingly. By 2000, the US prison system had more than 2 million convicts, a four-fold increase as of 1972.  Mind you that a prisoner costs $25,000 per year to keeping him behind bars and away from the streets…

As of early 1990, crime rates of all categories, especially violent crimes, started to decline sharply and steadily. Criminology experts had warned that crime epidemics will get out of control, and they needed so time to realize that it was the opposite trend that was taking its steady course.

Between 1991 and 2001, crime experts extended many explanations for this aberrant trend of crime decline. Here are a few of the explanations with frequency of citations in the media:

1. Innovative policing strategies:  52 citations

2. Increased reliance on prison: 47

3. Changes in crack and other drug markets: 33

4. Aging population: 32

5. Tougher gun-control laws: 32

6. Strong economy: 28

7. Increased number of police force: 26

8. Increase use of capital punishment: 24

9. Concealed-weapon laws

10. Gun buybacks policies…

Only three of the above 10 explanations had significant effects on crime decline, mainly factors 2, 3, and 7. There are strong correlation, if not causative explanation, among the trends of increased reliance on prison, prison duration, increase conviction rates and the number of law and order effective in order to round-up, capture, process, and prosecute criminals.

Consequently, it can be said that the increase in police forces was associated with a political policy of increasing conviction rates and expanding the prison system. These factors accounted for almost one-third of the crime drop.

In that period, cocaine and heroine prices dropped, and it was no longer worth sacrificing years in prison for small returns on crimes…

The main factor that was behind the decline and accounted for two-third was never mentioned or even contemplated.  This factor needed about 17 years of incubation (gestation) before it generated its powerful effect, and it is the legalized abortion law that took effect in 1973 in all US States. A few large cities in States such as New York, Illinois, California… that had legal abortion laws before 1973, all had witnessed decline in crime rates before all other States.

All those unwanted children, born from single mothers or living in single families in poor neighborhoods and uneducated parents, were not born and had not to be raised to emulate their predecessors, as highly potential criminals in the waiting and the making.  That is what the analysis of Steven Levitt showed from torturing huge data-bases on the subject. Read Freakonomics.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

December 2020
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