What's behind the declines in violent crime? The question prompts
lively discussion among people coming at a huge social issue from
different angles: Some point to random demographic changes, others
cite lock-'em-up prison policies; still others, most recently,
point to more astute policing. This debate is not exactly a replay
of the old argument over root causes versus tough law enforcement.
The deep social pathologies that breed crime are still there,
and that argument unfortunately remains on hold. Instead, the
recent drop in crime rates poses a central strategic issue of
criminal justice: Should it be reactive, emphasizing the capture,
adjudication, and punishment of criminals after they commit crimes?
Or proactive, working to prevent crimes from ever occurring? In
principle, this should not be an either/or matter, but limited
resources force choices.
Call it the "back-end/front-end" debate. Back-enders,
focusing on events at the conclusion of the criminal justice process,
favor punishment for its own sake and for its deterrent effects.
They like the death penalty, long prison terms, and limited discretion
for judges and parole boards who might be tempted to reduce them.
Front-enders look for results from the early stages of justice:
policing, gun control, drug treatment, and other kinds of alternative
(to prison) programs for young offenders. In general, the back-end
approach attracts conservatives who like to sound tough; the front-end
approach attracts liberals who focus on broader social dynamics.
Which is the better way to fight crime? While the question ought
to be pursued seriouslyit is richly complex in practical, economic,
and moral issuesit became hopelessly politicized during the decade
that began around 1985, when crack and guns produced a surge of
urban crime and politicians sought ways to exploit the fear it
generated. As it turned out, this politics of crime heavily favored
back-enders as it produced fervent support for capital punishment
and a nationwide movement toward three-strikes and other mandatory-sentencing
The movement was grounded in valid public anxiety about the level
of crime, which no longer could be dismissed as an urban ghetto
problem. Millions of middle-class Americans were waking up to
the fact that fear had transformed their daily lives. Rising crime
imposed surcharges for locks, alarms, and insurance; limited their
use of parks, subways, neighborhood streets, and other public
places after dark; forced complicated logistics for the supervision
and protection of children.
Inevitably, people with narrow agendas sought to exploit the fear.
Front-enders lamented the new "iron triangle" that lobbied
relentlessly, and effectively, for harsher criminal sentences.
Its three components: right-wing Republicans seeking to contrast
themselves with "soft-on-crime" Democrats; builders,
suppliers, and labor unions that benefited from expanding prison
construction; and the National Rifle Association, which reflexively
sought to fend off serious gun control with proposals for mandatory
terms and sentence enhancements for crimes committed with firearms.
Front-enders sputtered in frustration as lawmakers brushed aside
evidence that the fear-driven back-end agenda held no promise
of greater crime control, and that it created something close
to official racism as it forced disproportionate numbers of young
black men into prison. What the front-enders failed to grasp was
that the discussion had moved away from crime control, where it
belongs, and into uglier, more primitive territory. Simply put,
the frightened public gave up on government's ability to prevent
crime and turned to other ways of handling its fear.
One of these ways was ad hoc privatization: small armies of security
guards for hire; profitable new industries (the Club and Lojack
to protect cars; cellular phones with buttons programmed for 911;
more sophisticated alarm systems). Another fear-driven remedy
was the demand for revenge, or, more precisely, for "expressive
punishments" that put more emphasis on venting collective
rage than controlling crime. Thus did huge majorities support
the death penalty and longer prison sentences; in addition, millions
applauded the caning of a young American for vandalism in Singapore
and called for legislation to make corporal punishment possible
here. They cheered as state lawmakers revived chain gangs and
convict stripes and sought to eliminate the "amenities"
of prison life. Sensing the public mood, lower-court judges toyed
with public "shaming" as an alternative to jail for
misdemeanants. Legislators, relieved that they could satisfy voters
without having to control crime, were glad to go along with this
use of criminal justice for mass therapy.
COST-EFFECTIVE CRIME PREVENTION
While a back-end strategy could guarantee a quick political payoff,
no serious policymaker could ignore the longer-term costs. Between
1984 and 1994, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics,
the number of convicts admitted to the nation's state and federal
prisons in a year swelled 120 percent, from 246,260 to 541,434,
boosting the total incarcerated 116 percent, from 419,346 to 904,647.
The taxpayers' overall bill for criminal justicepolice, courts,
and correctionsalso nearly doubled in the period, from $45.6
billion in 1985 to $93.8 billion seven years later, with corrections'
share of the total increasing from 28.6 percent to 33.6 percent,
or $31.5 billion.
What, in fact, was all this money buying? On this point, the statistics
were hardly reassuring. The issue is one of scale. Perhaps half
of serious crimes are reported to police. Of these, only about
one-fifth result in an arrest. Less than two-thirds of those result
in a conviction, and a tiny percentage wind up serving time in
a state or federal penitentiary. Thus, the 20 million serious
crimes committed each year produce about 500,000 incarcerationsand
a third of them are for nonviolent drug offenses or drunk driving.
Even if each convicted felon is responsible for many more than
one crime apiece, how can incarceration of so small a fraction
of serious criminals have much effect on the crime rate, either
directly or as a deterrent? And, if budgets are limited, how is
it possible to justify spending 33.6 percent of all the available
money to impose serious punishment for a tiny percentage of serious
People determined to promote the back-end strategy point to studies
that document crimes and costs apparently saved by incarceration.
William Bennett and his co-authors John DiIulio and John Walters
refer in their book Body Count to surveys of prison inmates in
Wisconsin and New Jersey who claim to have committed numerous
crimes in the year before their imprisonment. Both groups of inmates
self-reported medians of 12 property or violent crimes, excluding
drug crimes. The authors quote other research finding as many
as 21 averted crimes for each incarcerated prisoner.
They also quote a study that sought to assess not only direct
costs to victims but "monetary value of lost quality of life"
caused by crime. "Using various measures," the study
put prices on individual murders ($2.4 million each), rapes ($60,000),
arson ("almost $50,000"), assault ($22,000), and robbery
($25,000). Multiplying numbers like that by the annual "crimes
averted" factors found in the studies of inmates yields amounts
that dwarf the average annual cost of keeping an inmate in prison
However such calculations might provide ammunition for lobbyists
of the iron triangle, they remain less than persuasive. Obviously,
incarceration incapacitates criminals who are subject to it, and
many criminals do commit many crimes per year. But the back-enders
leave their audiences with an incomplete picture, for nearly everyone
who goes to prison eventually gets released. And given the lack
of rehabilitation resoundingly documented by recidivism studies
over the years, most of those coming out can be expected to commit
new crimes at similar rates. Thus, while 541,434 criminals were
sent to prisons in 1994, 456,942 came out, for a net reduction
that year of only 84,492 criminals. This does represent an increase
over 1984, when 246,260 went in and 221,768 came out, for a net
reduction of 24,492. But it's hard to see how incapacitating 60,000
more criminals, a figure that includes nonviolent drug offenders,
can have more than a modest impact on serious crime rates even
if one believes that each person incapacitated would have committed
10 or 20 crimes in a year. The net incapacitation figure, furthermore,
is small enough to be overwhelmed by an increase in the number
of young people recruited into lives of drugs, crime, and guns
each year, as happened in the late 1980s. And, of course, as legislatures
weary of spending tax dollars for prison expansion, allowing the
surge of incarceration to level off, the figures will reverse
for a time, with more people coming out than going in, for a net
increase of criminals on the street.
As for the claim that the aversion of crimes saves society money,
front-end strategies could save as much or more. In any case,
estimations of crime control savings don't balance public budgets.
And so far, the idea of saving taxpayers so much money in averted
costs of crime hasn't led conservative back-enders to support
hefty tax increases on them to finance more prison construction.
There simply is no escaping the troubling distortion of spending
for corrections at the expense of the rest of the system. Couldn't
some of the $31.5 billion that goes to lock up a few hundred thousand
serious criminals for a few years each be put to better use preventing
some of the 20 million serious crimes?
It's also instructive to think of the issue from the neighborhood's
point of view. Suppose that crime may be reduced in equal measure
and at equal economic cost either by putting a lot of people in
prison or by putting more police on the street and developing
other front-end programs to intervene with offenders early. Which
strategy leaves the community better off?
Increased police presence risks increased abuse of civil liberties
by overzealous officers, a problem that inflicts temporary aggravation
on some innocent citizens. But sending people to prison inflicts
severe, if not calamitous, emotional and financial stress on their
innocent spouses, children, and parents. And their neighborhoods
suffer the consequences of having to cope with ex-convicts as
they return with their employment prospects permanently stunted
and their ability to function in family and community life further
impaired by the various brutalities of prison.
Other things being equal, the community clearly is better off
with more police and front-end programs than with more people
going to prison. In these terms, a strong case could be made for
controlling crime with police even if it costs more than controlling
it by sending people to prison. Any evidence that the police approach
produces greater crime control at lower cost should blow the prison
strategy out of the water.
OUNCES OF PREVENTION
In a sense, liberals who embrace a front-end law-enforcement strategy
are growing up. A crime control agenda based on prevention arguably
might include almost any measure that improves education, creates
jobs, supplies day care, improves low-income housing, increases
access to health care, and otherwise supports poor families. But
by ignoring the citizenry's immediate anxiety about personal security,
liberals who emphasized only "root causes" seemed hopelessly
naive, and ceded the whole crime issue to conservatives. A front-end
agenda of direct prevention doesn't mean giving up on root causes.
But it does allow those with a more social conception of crime
to embrace an approach that has two immense advantages over the
back-end response: It is less vengefuland more effective.
Consider New York City: The violent summer of 1990 prompted the
city's first black mayor, David Dinkins, and his police commissioner,
Lee Brown, to push a proposal for new police hiringand a tax
to pay for itthrough the city council and state legislature.
The effective expansion of the department from 25,465 to more
than 32,000 officers would turn out to be a gift of immeasurable
value to Police Commissioner William Bratton, brought in from
Boston by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who defeated Dinkins's try for
a second term in 1993.
Bratton had previously served as chief of New York City's transit
police, where he had experimented with new strategies. Now he
returned with large ambitions that he would realize all too well,
attracting so much attention for genuine achievement that the
mayor, feeling upstaged, forced him out after two-and-a-half years.
Bratton's approach was to disperse responsibility for crime fighting
downward to precinct commanders while instituting weekly meetings
to hold them strictly accountable for results. In order to measure
them, he forced precincts to produce a wealth of statistical data.
Police computers began to map out crime and enforcement patterns
with unprecedented precision and timelinessthey might show, for
example, that reports of shootings on a certain street corner
occurred mostly on Fridays and Saturdays after 9 p.m.
Precinct commanders were called to account in weekly "COMSTAT"
meetings: Why are there so many shootings on that street corner?
What do we know about that location and the people who frequent
it? What are you doing to get it under control?
At the same time, the new commissioner found excellent use for
the new cops coming out of the academy as a result of the Dinkins/Brown
hiring plan. He ordered a citywide campaign against "quality
of life" offensesdrinking in public, urinating on the street,
making noise, and other forms of rowdiness.
Though the endeavor sounded like a public relations stunt, it
was deadly serious, with purposes that ran far deeper than simply
promoting better manners in public. Bratton was aware of the 1982
Atlantic Monthly article "Broken Windows," much discussed
in police circles, by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling; it compares
a neighborhood where police ignore low-level offenses with a building
where the landlord ignores a broken window. As people realize
that that they can get away with it, they begin to break more
windows until the building is destroyed. Wilson and Kelling used
the analogy to argue that determined policing of low-level offenses
could inhibit serious criminal activity as well.
In New York, in 1994, "quality of life" became the excuse
for an aggressive form of patrolling targeted on youthful lowlifes.
It generated complaints of harassment even as it drew praise from
older residents of troubled neighborhoods. The routine, based
on police lawyers' careful study of Supreme Court "stop and
frisk" decisions, called for officers to stop and request
identification of anyone they suspected of committing an infraction,
accepting only government-issued picture ID.
Those not carrying proper ID or found to be the subject of outstanding
warrants were taken into custody, driven to the precinct station,
and turned over to detectives who interrogated them for whatever
they might tell about drug and gun trafficking and recent crimes
in the neighborhood. The process added mightily to the flow of
fresh information on which to base new operations.
The effects were immediate and dramatic. The number of homicides
in the city had begun a gradual decline in the last years of the
Dinkins administration. With the arrival of Bratton, COMSTAT,
and aggressive patrolling, the homicide rate began a steep decline
that appears to be continuing. Only 985 homicides occurred in
the city in 1996, a decline of 57 percent from the peak number
of 2,262 in 1990.
Bratton declared that he had proved the broken windows theory.
His new measures, he said, had inhibited street criminals, causing
them to leave their guns and drugs at home. These claims met with
skepticism at first. Weren't crime rates going down all over the
country? What was so special about New York? And weren't a lot
of things beginning to happen that could be reducing crime independently
of the police?
So far, the New York story survives those questions. The nation's
big-city homicide rate turned down after 1991 and has continued
to fall through 1996. But New York's decline exceeds the national
figure. The homicide rate for cities of more than 1 million fell
from 33 per 100,000 in 1991 to 21 per 100,000 in 1995. In New
York, the rate fell from 29 per 100,000 to 16 per 100,000 in the
Other explanations for declining crime include the natural maturing
and waning of the crack epidemic, shifts in drug market patterns,
and demographic changes that leave fewer crime-prone teenagers
on city streets. But these more gradual events don't explain the
close congruence of sharp declines in New York City's crime and
the introduction of Bratton's new management and strategies.
Meanwhile, the only independent analysis so far, conducted by
Andrew Karmen at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, offers
some striking findings. Karmen found that homicides committed
with guns and those committed out of doors fell more sharply than
those committed indoors or with other weapons. He also found that
homicides declined with the rise of patrol strength and with increases
in misdemeanor arrests for quality-of-life offenses. Such findings
bolster police claims that their greater numbers and aggressive
patrols are inhibiting gun use and street crime.
The calculation of costs and benefits extends well beyond the
criminal justice system and crime victims. A city experiencing
dramatic declines in crime from policing, as opposed to slight
or negligible ones from increased incarceration, becomes more
hospitable to tourists and to businesses. And the good news, palpable
on every street corner, calms the middle-class homeowners whose
periodic bouts of panic about the city's future weaken their stabilizing
commitments to neighborhoods and schools.
While the New York experience is especially striking given the
size of the city and its police department, it isn't unique. Bostonians
have recently seen a drastic decline in crime, particularly in
gun violence among juveniles. Observers credit a comprehensive
police strategy characterized by unprecedented involvement with
communities and cooperation among law enforcement agencies. Houston,
Dallas, and San Diego have also seen big declines in crime, apparently
the result of increased police presence and more aggressive patrolling.
The successes of police-based approaches to crime control encourage
thinking about other front-end measures. At least three spring
to mind immediately:
Invest more in lower courts, probation departments, and early
alternatives. Offenders sentenced to state penitentiaries for
serious crimes typically wind up there only after committing a
number of lower-level crimes (only some of which come to the attention
of the authorities) for which they receive insignificant sentences
to lightly supervised probation or "time served"days
already spent in jail awaiting court action. Especially if they
are relatively young, offenders get off with such sentences because
judges are reluctant to expose them to the routine terrors of
penitentiary life for a first or second offense.
There is broad agreement that much crime might be averted if courts
were able to intervene with offenders more meaningfully after
the first or second minor offense, rather than waiting for them
to commit more serious crimes. Yet the nation's overcrowded, underfunded
urban arraignment courts are a classic horror show of criminal
justice. The heavy workload, burnout, and cynicism among criminal
justice workers usually preclude any careful consideration of
the offender and the underlying problemssubstance abuse, lack
of education, family crisesthat lead people into low-level criminality.
During the 1990s, a few jurisdictions found the will and the resources
to improve lower courts. Some set up "drug courts" where
judges sentence drug-abusing offenders to treatment programs,
then monitor their progress, retaining the power to incarcerate
them for failure. New York City set up a somewhat different model
in midtown Manhattan. This "community court" arraigned
low-level offenders of all sorts, sentencing them to community
service projects in the neighborhood, and referring them to a
well-staffed social service office located on the premises.
Innovative efforts of lower courts are enhanced when probation
departments are able to help. Agencies that deal with offenders
released under court supervision are likely to be as under-resourced
as lower courts. Exceptions are found in Phoenix, Arizona, and
in the state of Georgia. Both places offer judges probationmanaged
"ladders" of sanctionssentencing options that increase
in severity from standard probation supervision through "intensive
supervision" (lower caseloads), electronic monitoring, and
house arrest, up to work release and boot camp programs based
in secure residences. Judges greatly appreciate the chance to
move offenders up and down the ladder as they demonstrate more
or less willingness to behave.
The possibilities are enhanced further as probation departments
get creative with alternative sanctions, finding politically acceptable
modes. In South Carolina, for example, judges sentence offenders
to pay victims restitution rather than serving time in prison.
Offenders who don't have a way to pay are sent to secure residences
on the grounds of state prisons, then bused out to work each day
in private-sector jobs until they earn enough to pay off their
sentence amount. Job developers at the centers come up with the
placements, typically hard-to-fill minimum-wage slots where employers
frustrated by high turnover welcome the restitution center's steady
supply of workers, who are dependably sober, drug free, and motivated
by the desire for release.
The restitution centers suggest the potential for public acceptance
of front-end programs. Reliable payments of victim compensation
defuse much criticism of the non-prison sanction, while the restitution
workers' value to local employers builds support for the idea
in the business community.
Expand drug treatment. The link between substance abuse and criminal
behavior remains obvious and research suggests that as drug abusers
recover from addiction, they recover from criminality as well.
In large measure, the success of a front-end strategy that calls
upon judges and probation agencies to do more with offenders in
the early stages of their criminal careers depends upon abundant
availability of drug treatment.
The goal should be to develop enough treatment slots so that all
addicts who voluntarily seek help may obtain it immediately, and
so that judges who wish to make treatment part of a sentence package
can order an offender to begin at once. This could be accomplished
without any need for big new federal or state bureaucracies simply
by amending the Medicaid law so that it will reimburse drug addiction
therapy provided through free-standing programs rather than in
Skeptics point out that the treatment programs have low rates
of success. How can one be sure money spent on them doesn't go
down the drain? Yet programs that move even, say, 25 percent of
clients into long-term recovery may wind up costing less than
sending the same offenders to prison for short terms, then returning
them to lives of addiction and crime. Furthermore, treatment managers
say that an addict may need several attempts at treatment before
it "takes." As courts require offenders to try again
and again, the success rate increases.
Get serious about gun control. Researchers confirm the police
belief that guns in the hands of kids played a central role in
the burst of crime that began in 1985. Even so, lobbying of the
National Rifle Association minimized new gun-control legislation
during the 1980s and early 1990s. The Brady Bill and the ban on
assault weapons, hailed as big symbolic victories, are relatively
modest measures. In 1994 and 1995, however, the NRA overreached
politically and, by some accounts, financially as well, and its
influence began to recede. That makes real gun control look feasible.
A serious gun policy would, at a minimum, require as much of a
person who wishes to own and use a gun as of one who wants to
own and use a car. Guns should be numbered and registered, with
data on guns and owners stored in a computer database instantly
accessible by law enforcement agencies.
In addition, gun owners should be licensed, and the burden should
be on applicants to demonstrate that they are mentally healthy,
have no criminal or spousal abuse records, and have no problems
with drugs or alcohol. They should be required to pass written
tests on gun law and gun safety as well as practical tests of
gun handling on a firing range. And they should have to carry
substantial liability insurance. Beyond that, Washington could
require manufacturers to build in safety devices like trigger
locks that permit use of the gun only by the registered owner,
and magnetic strips or computer chips that make guns easier to
detect and trace.
Finally, federal law could require that anyone who wants to purchase
more than one gun per month make the case for such a need to the
local police. Such a law poses no inconvenience to virtually all
legitimate gun purchasers, but it could severely inhibit profiteering
by gun runners who make legal purchases from retail stores and
resell the weapons illegally on the street.
How much would a front-end strategy cost? Obviously the expansion
of police departments, lower courts, probation agencies, alternative
sanctions, drug treatment, and the bureaucracies necessary to
enforce new gun laws would require significant spending. The back-end
strategy, however, has already committed the nation to billions
in new spending as prisons expand and courts fill them with tens
of thousands of new inmates. The issue may not be one of coming
up with new money so much as engineering a partial shift of funds
already in place.
For now, it's enough that police-led victories over crime in New
York and other cities revive the front-end/back-end debate and
demonstrate an urgent need for research: How are more police used
most efficiently? How can lower courts adapt themselves for early
intervention and crime control? What are the optimum staffing
levels for probation departments? What kinds of alternative sanctions
yield the best results? How do different modes of drug treatment
work for different kinds of addicts? What would national gun registration
and licensing entail and what would be their likely effects?
Such questions, considered marginal where back-end assumptions
dominate talk of criminal justice, now belong at the head of the
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