A Quite Deliberate Failure: Reflections on the Politics of Crime

Published as a ZNet Commentary, www.zmag.org, 4/1/04

Though it is always difficult to predict the outcome of an election in the United States, it is quite a bit easier to make accurate pronouncements about the way in which an election campaign will unfold. No matter the candidates, certain things are virtually guaranteed to happen: from nasty campaign ads that attack the personal integrity of one’s opponent, to lavish spending by the major parties in order to sway the public to their candidate.

And this too: in every election cycle, one can fairly predict that the two major candidates for President will fall over themselves to prove to the voters that they are the toughest on crime; which remains one of the hottest of hot-button issues in the U.S.

Yet in truth there is little reason to believe that any candidate claiming to be tough on crime is serious. After all, they almost never seem to propose the kinds of policies that we know from the available evidence would actually reduce the incidence of criminal victimization. While politicians love to be tough on criminals, being tough on crime is an entirely different matter.

There are several problems with the anti-crime rhetoric we are likely to hear between now and the November election: among them, the reality that crime rates are much lower than believed and have dropped dramatically in recent years; the equal reality that lock-’em-up strategies favored by most politicians seeking votes are actually either ineffective or counterproductive to crime control efforts; and finally, that the only way to truly lower crime rates in the long run is to address the structural conditions that give rise to it in the first place: those “root causes” about which no one seems anxious to speak, for fear they be branded “bleeding hearts.”

But in fact, without a comprehensive policy to confront glaring economic inequalities and the conditions of extreme poverty, crime will never be adequately attacked in the United States, meaning that it is the bleeding hearts, and not the crackdown crowd, who actually hold out the best hope for a safer nation.

Since political elites are not (by and large) stupid, and since they are regularly bombarded with the studies and data to indicate which anti-crime strategies work best, their continued unwillingness to engage root causes can only signify that they don’t really want to make a serious long-term dent in crime, or at least that if they do, they would still prefer the political advantage offered by public fear: a fear they can masterfully exploit come election time. Given the political payoff of anti-crime fear-mongering (especially the overtly racist way in which such pandering has played out historically), there is little reason to expect things to change anytime soon.

The Truth About Crime in America

Fact is, although crime stories regularly top local news broadcasts, and crime as an issue always figures prominently in political campaigns, crime in the U.S. is not on the rise. In fact it is falling dramatically and has been for years. In urban centers, often viewed as a havens for criminals (especially those of color), crime has been plummeting, and from 1991-1999 the murder rate in large cities dropped by over half (Fox and Zawitz, 2000).

Between 1993 and 2002, violent crime rates in the U.S. fell 54 percent, and by 2002, the nation’s violent victimization rate had fallen to its lowest point since 1973: the year when victimization data began to be collected by the Justice Department (Rennison and Rand, 2003: 1). Even in raw number terms, crime has plummeted, with 23 million total criminal victimizations in 2002 (both violent and property crimes combined), compared to 44 million victimizations in 1973 (Rennison and Rand, 2003: 1).

To these facts, naturally, the get-tough crowd has a ready answer. As Attorney General John Ashcroft has argued, of course crime is down, but this, he says, is only because of tougher sentences, more police on the streets, and the hard-nosed conservative policies adopted in the past few decades, by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The Irony of the Lock-em-Up mentality

But get-tough policies are far less instrumental in reducing crime rates than the relative strength of the economy at any given moment. As indicated by cross-state crime comparisons, there is simply no positive relationship between the severity of a state’s laws and decreases in murder, rape or assault: the three most serious violent crimes (Currie, 1998: 58-60). Expanding a city’s police force or prison capacity likewise has not been found to bear any positive relationship to reducing homicide rates. Also, since the majority of new incarcerations have been for non-violent offenses — disproportionately drug offenses — it makes little sense to credit the prison binge for declining crime rates: after all, those bearing the brunt of the lock-’em up policy are not violent offenders at all, let alone the worst of the worst.

What’s more, the very crackdown policies that obviously can reduce crime in the short-run (by removing particular felons from the streets) can actually have a boomerang effect, thereby increasing crime overall. Researchers have found that incarceration of youthful offenders — a staple of the get-tough crowd that prefers prosecuting young criminals as adults — tends to delay the onset of delinquency cessation, and thereby increase the risk of future offending by these juveniles upon release (Blumstein, Cohen and Golub, 1989; also Glassner, 1999: 74).

Likewise, once an offender has a criminal record, their future prospects for employment and earnings fall dramatically, thereby increasing the likelihood of re-offending. Studies have found that those with criminal records have unemployment rates of nearly 50 percent, and that having a prison record reduces the amount of hours employed after one’s release by 25-30 percent. In part, this is because so many employers — as many as 6 in 10 according to one study — openly admit that they would never knowingly hire an ex-offender (Street, 2002: 6).

So although the U.S. may be enjoying the short-term benefits of massive incarcerations, once the bulk of those offenders are released from prison (as most will be since they are not in for major crimes), their inability to find steady employment may only increase crime rates in the future. We may, in other words, reap what we have sown.

Poverty, geography and living conditions as the key to crime

Not only do politicians tend to support policies that make things worse, they rarely talk about the kinds of policies needed to make things substantially better, at least in the long term. Though it may be unpopular with many, the fact remains that the conditions of poverty and economic marginalization are the key factors driving violent crimes in the U.S., and only an amelioration of those conditions can hold out long-term and lasting hope for reducing the risk of victimization to the nation’s people.

No, poverty does not cause crime itself, and yes most poor folks don’t commit crime. But that doesn’t deny the link between economic destitution and criminality. After all, not everyone who smokes gets cancer — in fact, most probably won’t — but no one seriously disputes the linkage between the two things. Likewise, not everyone who gets shot in the head dies: but only a fool would dispute the generally high correlation between those things either.

Those who dispute the link between poverty and crime tend to oversimplify the issue, by noting that there is no direct correlation between income levels and crime rates. Although this is true for the most part, it misses the point. It is not income per se, nor even poverty in the abstract, but certain conditions associated with severe poverty that are most highly linked to criminality. Thus, the racial crime gaps in the U.S. — whereby African Americans commit a disproportionate amount of violent street crimes (though whites continue to commit the majority) — is entirely the result of different conditions in which whites and blacks find themselves living (Krivo and Peterson, 1996: 619-48; Chasin, 1997: 49).

Although whites suffer poverty too, black poverty is more severe and more likely to correlate with crime. Seven out of ten poor whites live in stable, mostly non-poor neighborhoods, while eighty-five percent of the black poor live in mostly poor areas (Johnson and Chanhatasilpa, 2003: 98; also, Smith, 1995: 128). Blacks are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty than whites (less than half the poverty line) and six times more likely to live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods (Wachtel, 1999: 294, fn15.) Indeed, three-quarters of persons living in concentrated poverty neighborhoods are people of color (powell, 2001: 6).

Looking specifically at homicide rates, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that crowded housing was the key to higher murder rates among blacks in the U.S. When census tracts with similar incomes, population density and housing conditions are compared, racial murder rate differences evaporate (Pope, 1995), because the poorest neighborhoods have similar homicide rates, no matter their racial composition (Johnson and Chantatasilpa, 2003: 106).

But rarely do politicians talk about confronting systemic resource deprivation in black and brown communities as a central feature, or even side feature, of their anti-crime platforms. Instead, they speak of more cops, more jails, and longer sentences, no matter how inadequate (and even counterproductive) such policies may in fact be. Nowhere is this more evident than with regard to drug crimes.

War on Drugs or Race War?

Although all available evidence suggests that whites are equally or more likely to use drugs than blacks or Latinos (SAMHSA, various years, 1999-2003), and roughly equally likely to sell them (Riley, 1997: 1; Davis and Thomas, 1997: A20; Covington, 2001: 33), the fact remains that people of color continue to bear the brunt of the law enforcement crackdown which comprises the largest component of the so-called war on drugs.

For example, although white youth demonstrate greater usage of illegal narcotics than youth of color (SAMHSA, various), the juvenile justice system continues to treat youth of color as the biggest problem. Black youth arrested for a drug offense, with no prior records, are forty-eight times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, even when all other factors surrounding the arrest are similar (“Young White Offenders get lighter treatment,” 2000: 8A). Although blacks and Latinos are 90 percent of persons incarcerated nationally for drugs (Sidanius, Levin and Pratto, 1998: 142), they represent only 23 percent of drug users (SAMHSA, 2003, Table H.1. and calculations by author) according to the most recent federal data. Meanwhile, whites, who are between 70 percent and three-fourths of users (SAMHSA, 2003 and various), comprise less than ten percent of those incarcerated for drugs (Sidanius, Levin and Pratto).

In all, black drug users are nearly twenty times more likely than anyone else to spend time in prison for their use (Hilfiker, 2002: 39), and in fifteen states, the rate of black incarceration for drug offenses is anywhere from 20-57 times greater than for whites, despite equal or greater rates of drug law violations by whites (Human Rights Watch, 2000). Amazingly, when all other factors surrounding an arrest are the same, black cocaine offenders are twice as likely to be sent to prison and will serve, on average, forty months more than white offenders (Brown, Carnoy, et.al., 2003: 144).

According to a Justice Department report from February 2001, police are more than twice as likely to search vehicles driven by blacks after pulling them over, even though whites, when searched, are more than twice as likely to be in possession of illegal items. Latino drivers were between 2 and 2.26 times more likely to be personally searched or to have their cars searched by police, even though they are less likely than blacks or whites, per capita, to use drugs and thus possess them at any given moment (Langan, Greenfeld, et.al., 2001: 2, 22).

In other words, the war on drugs is so completely focused on people of color — who statistically make up a small percentage of those committing drug offenses — that it makes little sense to consider it a war on drugs at all.

And to the extent said war focuses not on where the drugs are, but mostly where they are not, one must either conclude that policymakers and law enforcement agents who carry out this type of campaign are extraordinarily incapable of recognizing futility when they see it, or else that their main concern is not reducing drug use and abuse, but rather, controlling black and brown bodies. Given the history of quite deliberate social control of persons of color — which became harder to do overtly after the fall of segregation and Jim Crow, but which could be re-imposed by other means via mass incarceration in the present-day — the latter seems far more likely than the former.

After all, it was President Clinton who buried the findings of a report his own White House commissioned from the RAND Corporation, which concluded that drug education and treatment strategies were up to five times more effective, and far less costly, than get-tough enforcement efforts (Currie, 1998: 109). In other words, if elites wanted to stem drug abuse or drug related crimes they already know how to do it, yet they refuse to act on what they know, all rhetoric and feigned concern aside.

So this election season, let us both prepare for (and prepare to resist) political grandstanding on the issue of crime and public safety. As with terrorism, there is much to be gained in political terms from stoking public panic, facts be damned, And as with terrorism too, public policy that fails to make the American public any safer in their homes or on the street, nonetheless plays well to a cowed populace whose fear can be translated into votes for the guy who promises to best impersonate an Old West sheriff.

But just as those lawmen of old gained power from the existence of external threats to the public they ostensibly served, and just as they thrived on their role as “protectors and defenders” of all that was good and wholesome, so too do today’s political elites need crime and disorder in order to justify their own power. However much they may personally wish for crime to decrease, one has to wonder how their political careers could withstand such a blow.


Blumstein, A., J. Cohen and A. Golub, 1989. “The Termination Rate of Adult Criminal Careers,” (working paper), Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University, School of Urban and Public Affairs.

Brown, Michael K. Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, Troy Duster, David Oppenheimer, Marjorie Shultz, and David Wellman, 2003. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. University of California.

Chasin, Barbara, 1997. Inequality and Violence in the United States. NJ: Humanities Press International.

Covington, Jeanette, 2001. “Round up the Usual Suspects: Racial Profiling and the War on Drugs,” in Petit Apartheid in the U.S. Criminal Justice System: The Dark Figure of Racism. Dragan Milovanovic and Katheryn K. Russell, eds., Carolina Academic Press.

Currie, Elliott, 1998. Crime and Punishment in America. NY: Metropolitan Books.

Davis, Patricia and Pierre Thomas, 1997. “In Affluent Suburbs, Young Users and Sellers Abound,” Washington Post. December 14.

Fox, James Alan and Marianne W. Zawitz, 2000. Homicide Trends in the United States. U.S. Dept of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Glassner, Barry, 1999. Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. NY: Basic Books.

Hilfiker, David. 2002. Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen. Seven Stories Press.

Human Rights Watch, 2000. Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. DC: May, Volume 12, No. 2.

Johnson, Calvin and Chanchalat Chanhatasilpa, 2003. “The Race/Ethnicity and Poverty Nexus of Violent Crime: Reconciling Differences in Chicago’s Community Area Homicide Rates,” in Violent Crime: Assessing Race and Ethnic Differences. Darnell Hawkins, ed., Cambridge University Press.

Krivo, L.J. and R.D. Peterson, 1996. “Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Crime,” Social Forces. 75, 2. December.

Langan, Patrick A., Lawrence A. Greenfeld, Steven K. Smith, Matthew Durose and David J. Levin, 2001. Contacts Between Police and the Public: Findings from the 1999 National Survey. U.S. Dept of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics, February.

Pope, John, 1995. “Murder linked to dense poverty,” New Orleans Times-Picayune. June 14.

powell, john. 2001. “Socioeconomic School Integration,” Poverty and Race Research Action Council Bulletin. 10:6, November/December: 6.

Rennison, Callie Marie and Michael R. Rand, 2003. Criminal Victimization, 2002. U.S. Dept of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, August.

Riley, Jack K. 1997. “Crack, Powder Cocaine and Heroin: Drug Purchase and User Patterns in Six U.S. Cities,” National Institute of Justice, December.

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999. Results from the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, and Summary of Findings from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Office of Applied Studies, Dept of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD.

Sidanius, Jim, Shana Levin and Felicia Pratto, 1998. “Hierarchial Group Relations, Institutional Terror and the Dynamics of the Criminal Justice System,” in Confronting Racism: The Problem and the Response. Jennifer Eberhardt and Susan Fiske, eds., London: Sage.

Smith, Robert, 1995. Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. SUNY Press.

Street, Paul. 2002. The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and the Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation. Chicago Urban League.

Wachtel, Paul. 1999. Race in the Mind of America. NY: Routledge.

“Young white offenders get lighter treatment,” 2000. Nashville Tennesseean (AP), April 26: 8A.

Leave a Reply