State of the Debate: Tough Guys

Works Discussed in This Essay

William J. Bennett, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and John P. Walters, Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs. Simon and Schuster, 1996.

John Hagan and Ruth D. Peterson, ed. Crime and Inequality. Stanford University Press, 1995.

Given the fame of its authors, its provocative title, and its contentious rhetoric, Body Count seems destined to be a best-seller, popular with the Republican right. The former drug czar and secretary of education William J. Bennett here joins with John J. DiIulio, Jr., a Princeton University political scientist, and John P. Walters, a former deputy to Bennett in the drug war, to warn Americans of an impending wave of violent crime and to urge an expanded war on drugs, tougher policing, longer sentences, more imprisonment, and—not to be forgotten—more religion.

"America's beleaguered cities," the authors declare, "are about to be victimized by a paradigm shattering wave of ultraviolent, morally vacuous young people some call 'the superpredators.'" They write: "A new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known." And they predict that the next generation will be even more predatory, with juvenile crime peaking in 2010.

DiIulio has for several years been predicting that violent crime would increase, even as crime rates have fallen during the 1990s. Until recently, the general decline in crime did not appear to be paralleled by a decline among youth. Last August, however, the New York Times reported that data compiled by the FBI showed that after reaching an all-time peak in 1993, the arrest rate for homicides for youths ages 10 to 17 had fallen 22.8 percent. The overall rate of juvenile violent crime, including assault, robbery, and rape as well as murder, also declined by almost 3 percent.

Declining crime rates, however, do not impress the authors of Body Count. "There are a lot more teenagers on the way," they write. "We may be experiencing the lull before the coming storm." Perhaps—but unlike the authors, I am averse to predicting which way the stock market will move next year or which team will win the World Series at the turn of the century, much less whether the youth crime rate will continue climbing until 2010.

To be sure, if the absolute numbers of youth rise sufficiently, youth crime can rise in absolute numbers, even as youth crime rates decline. And as DiIulio himself has noted—for example, in speeches before the International Association of Chiefs of Police last April and at New York University's Fortunoff Lecture last September—most juvenile offenders are neither violent nor incorrigible, and the system needs to be reformed in ways that address the entire range of youth offenders. Only a very tiny fraction of teenagers ever commit violent crimes. In 1980, out of 100,000 youths between the ages of 10 and 17, about 310 were arrested for violent crimes. The sharp rise in youth crime has raised that number to 470, still less than one-half of 1 percent of youngsters. Even Northwestern criminologist James Fox, who has characterized some of today's criminals as "the young and the ruthless," says that youth crime in the future will depend on many factors, including how we respond to the large and growing fraction of unsupervised and at-risk children.

Thus, the predictions in Body Count of a wave of "superpredators," like much else in the book, reflect a predilection for inflated claims and inflammatory language. That America should be facing "the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known" is a staggering assertion—for what it says about the authors' casual disregard for even the most elementary requirements of evidence. These are tough guys unafraid to use their credentials in the realms of virtue and social science for what is, ultimately, an ideological crusade.



Consider carefully the claims that the authors of Body Count make about prisons. "Virtually all convicted criminals who go to prison," they write, "are violent offenders, repeat offenders, or repeat violent offenders." "It is simply a myth," they continue, "that our prison cells are filled with people who don't belong there, or that we would somehow be safer if fewer people were in prison. The widespread circulation of that myth is the result of ideology masquerading as analysis."

So let's be analytical. Note that in the above statement Body Count aggregates three categories of offender—"violent offenders, repeat offenders, or repeat violent offenders"—one of which does not consist of people convicted of violent crimes. A careful analyst asks: Which people belong in prison, for what period of time, and at what cost? Do we want to punish petty thieves—even repeat offenders—as severely as we punish rapists and armed robbers? Do we want life sentences for every violent criminal? Do we want convicted rapist Mike Tyson to have served 3 years, 10, 30, or life? If we answer 10 or 30 are we prepared to tax ourselves to pay for the additional time served? And if we don't tax ourselves, are we prepared to accept cuts in such government services as education? These are the kinds of troubling questions that a nonideological, analytical stance suggests—and that Body Count doesn't ask.

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Of all criminal offenses, the most challenging to a common consensus are those involving drugs. The California electorate that voted for a draconian three strikes law in 1994 (mandating life sentences for those convicted of any third felony) also just approved an initiative legalizing the medical use of marijuana. A similar, but even more sweeping, initiative was approved in Arizona. Perhaps recent California voters were influenced by some of the facts about the Three Strikes Law that the authors of Body Count ignore. For example, data released in March 1996 by the California Department of Corrections and analyzed by San Francisco's Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice show that more people (3,749 to be exact) have been put away under Three Strikes for possession (not sale) of drugs than for all violent offenses combined (2,342 defendants). Indeed, twice as many defendants have been imprisoned under Three Strikes for marijuana possession than for murder, rape, and kidnapping combined.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 45 percent of Americans say that they, someone they know, or a member of their family has used drugs illegally. The 1996 National Drug Control Strategy, which reports these findings, goes on to point out that most of the respondents were whites living in households with an income in excess of $35,000. Americans are in a dilemma about drugs. They don't support legalization of any drugs because they fear the consequences, especially for youngsters. At the same time, they distinguish marijuana from other drugs, and they question draconian policies, such as those proposed by Bennett and company, which implicitly call for the imprisonment of the vast numbers of people who have used drugs illegally.



Body Count is notable not only for its get-tough remedies, but also for its insistence that violent crime and use of drugs are the result of "moral poverty" rather than of any underlying social or economic conditions. Those who commit violent crime do so because they are "morally impoverished" from never having had the benefit of "loving, capable, responsible adults who teach the young right from wrong." Doubtless that is often the case, but not always. Mafia hit men and bosses are sometimes reared in close, loving families. So was the attempted assassin of President Reagan, John Hinckley, Jr. But if the point is that responsible parents are better for children than irresponsible ones, who would disagree?

By the book's end, the authors offer us a more capacious litany of displeasure, particularly emphasizing out-of-wedlock births, especially by teenagers. I share their disapproval of unmarried teenage motherhood. But other than bemoaning the problem, their solutions are to bring back orphanages and to revive religion as a way of reducing sexual activity. Orphanages had a brief notoriety during the early days of Newt Gingrich's reign as speaker of the House, until Republicans figured out how much they would cost—economically and politically. Abstinence is always a popular plea, but it ignores the basic biological and demographic realities: Teenagers are becoming sexually mature at ever younger ages, men and women are marrying at ever later ages, and hence the period when Americans are sexually mature but unmarried has dramatically lengthened. Thus, calls for sexual abstinence, like orphanages, do not seem very promising as solutions, even if they are politically correct in right-wing Republican circles. And, of course, the authors do not advocate sex education and contraception to prevent pregnancy, nor do they advocate abortion to reduce unwanted childbirth.

The concept of "moral poverty" is at base tautological. Anyone who deliberately commits a major assault, violent rape, armed robbery, or homicide is, by definition, morally impoverished. In a book filled with statistics, it is interesting that the main theory—that moral poverty causes crime—cannot be tested. "Moral poverty" is a judgmental metaphor, not a measurable variable. It is not possible to produce a correlation coefficient describing the relationship between moral poverty and crime.

As the authors employ it, "moral poverty" is also an ideological policy concept. If moral poverty is the cause of crime, there is little that government can do about crime except to punish criminals, while exhorting parents to be morally responsible. To say that deficient parenting is the cause of crime is old hat—who would listen? But introduce a jazzy term like "moral poverty" with what they claim it produces—the young "superpredator"—and you may have the makings of a right-wing best-seller.

When we put the thunder of Body Count aside, the main theoretical and policy difference between it and most criminologists (who are a main target of the book's criticism) is how to produce responsible parenthood. That difference is monumental in its implications. Most criminologists employ some version of what sociologists call "social disorganization theory" to understand crime. In this perspective, joblessness and economic deprivation help to cause family breakdown, which in turn increases violent crime.

"Moral poverty," by contrast, ignores such factors as racism, joblessness, inequality, and poverty and zeroes in only on "the near complete collapse of our character-forming institutions . . . in a free society, families, schools, and churches." Consequently, the bonds of family must be "restored." How do we achieve this restoration? "We believe," the authors write, "the most obvious answer—and perhaps the only reliable answer—is a widespread renewal of religious faith and the strengthening of religious institutions." Lotsa luck and God bless.

By joining the politics of fear with the politics of virtue, Body Count is the mid-1990s' articulation of crime control policies that have dominated American life since Richard Nixon's 1968 election campaign—more aggressive policing, tougher sentencing, more prisons. To be sure, there are slight modifications of that vision. The authors point out that "no frills" prisons are no answer to crime control since most of those convicted scarcely deliberate about the severity of punishment before committing their crimes. Speaking directly to conservatives who support the death penalty (as they do), they say it is more a symbolic than a practical control measure. They do not support the National Rifle Association on gun control, concluding that some gun-control laws can make a small difference in reducing violent crime and consequently are worth implementing. And they bury the old chestnut that Miranda (requiring police to inform suspects of their right to remain silent) seriously undermines violent crime control.



Body Count focuses on crime by young black males, who are disproportionately the perpetrators and victims of violent crime and therefore an appropriate focal point for the book. But it is distressing that the authors introduce the "morally impoverished" youth criminal as an alien. They never explicitly link young black males with the "superpredator" label, but the connection is unmistakable.

The term, the authors say, is a summation of a concept attributed to the political scientist James Q. Wilson, who wrote that Americans "are terrified by the prospect of being gunned down at random, without warning and almost without motive, by youngsters who afterwards show us the blank, unremorseful face of a feral, pre-social being." Terms like "moral poverty," "superpredator," and "feral, pre-social being" exemplify what Cornel West, in his book Race Matters (1993), called "popular xenophobic images." It could scarcely have escaped the authors' minds that expressions like "superpredator" and "feral, pre-social being" pander to racist prejudice.

Virtually all criminologists agree racism alone cannot account for high black male arrest and conviction rates. African-American overrepresentation in the criminal justice system is unquestionably the result of black commission of serious violent offenses disproportionate to their presence in the population. Those who have the most to fear and be feared are not Americans in general, but young black males age 14 to 24. This category comprises roughly 8 percent of the total population, while constituting more than a quarter of all homicide victims and nearly half of all murderers. In addition, those who reside in inner-city areas where such crimes occur are disproportionately likely to be victims of crime. In New York City, homicides occur in East New York and the South Bronx, not in Sutton Place.

The relationship among race, crime, and punishment is more complex than the authors make it. Let me offer four examples from my own experience observing police in action in New York City and Oakland, California. A group of men gathered on a sidewalk in upper Manhattan listen to a boom box and disturb the neighbors. The owner, who has been warned before, is issued a $75 citation. Similarly, a young black man is issued a citation for drinking a beer on a hot night outside his crowded apartment building. In Oakland, a young black man is cited for driving with a broken taillight, another for smoking marijuana in the street.

All of the citations were legally administered; in none did the police appear to be acting out of racial animus. But an affluent white person is unlikely to be playing music outside his Park Avenue apartment or drinking beer in front of his Beverly Hills home and is, therefore, unlikely to be cited for these offenses. And fines leveled equally on the affluent and the poor are disproportionately punitive to the poor. If the fines go unpaid, the courts issue warrants; and if the warrants are ignored, arrest, jail, and a criminal record will follow. Racism aside, poor people's life circumstances make them more vulnerable to legal processes.

I have been studying criminal justice practices for more than three decades and have seen substantial progress in reducing racism, especially among police. But this didn't happen until after the riots of the 1960s and the civil rights litigation of the 1970s. When I studied the Oakland Police Depart ment in the early 1960s, there was one "Negro" officer. Today the chief and two of the three deputy chiefs are African-American. Police women are in high-ranking management positions in that and other departments, unheard of in the 1960s. In my recent experience, most white officers from beat cops to chiefs appreciate the problems confronting minority residents of the cities they police. Some of the best people I know are police.

Nevertheless, scandals in police agencies across America in the past few years have revealed cops who are racist, corrupt, deceptive, and brutal. A blue curtain of silence often constrains other police from blowing the whistle. As a result, many residents of minority communities, not only young black males, have become deeply mistrustful of the criminal justice system and its authorities. That mistrust is passed on to children. If poor minority neighborhoods generate crime, the negative experiences with authorities should be calculated as one of the causes.



Body Count completely dismisses poverty—the material kind, that is—as a cause of crime. For this conclusion they refer to an "insightful observation" by James Q. Wilson that "crime amidst plenty" was the real "paradox of the sixties." But if crime is, as the authors recognize a page earlier, "concentrated in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods," how can they say there was "plenty" where crime was concentrated?

Of course, there was plenty for some in the 1960s, while poverty and unemployment afflicted economically distressed urban neighborhoods—historically a recipe for the emergence of youth cultures leading to rising crime rates. Even when a rising tide lifts all boats, the poor may experience deprivation relative to the rest of society.

The authors of Body Count concede this much: "Many boys who go on to commit serious crimes do start life in relative material deprivation." And they even cite "compelling statistical evidence that public investments in certain types of programs for high-risk youth do pay social dividends in the form of reduced crime and fewer other social ills." So far, so good. Then they write that there's a huge difference between recognizing that certain programs reduce crime and recognizing "that poverty causes crime, that any program is better than no program, or that all successful programs can be widely and successfully replicated if only they are perpetually and lavishly funded by the taxpayers." No citation appears to support this outlandish interpretation of a "liberal vision." That is because no liberal and no criminologist, liberal or otherwise, has ever written any such sentence. When they cannot reconcile reality with their ideology, they go for the jugular and overstate.

In the edited volume Crime and Inequality, John Hagan and Ruth D. Peterson offer a sustained, sober, and scholarly review of the best criminological literature on this topic. Developed in a dozen articles by leading criminologists, the focal point of the volume is Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson's "Toward a Theory of Race, Crime, and Urban Inequality." Rooted in the ecological theory of social disorganization advanced by sociologists at the University of Chicago, the article draws upon the contemporary research of Sampson and Wilson. Basically, they argue that racial history and economic inequality lead to residential isolation, which in turn produces community structures and cultural patterns "that undermine social organization and hence the control of crime." One main point is that when whites are in similar social and ecological circumstances, their criminality is comparable to that of blacks.

In another article, Kenneth Land and his colleagues David Cantor and Stephen Russell draw upon a half century of studies supporting a macro-level relationship between the unemployment rate and property crime. Their research establishes that the relation between unemployment and property crime is even more robust at the level of census tracts or city blocks. The effect is still more pronounced in their time-series analyses, which "lag unemployment" and suggest how accumulated deprivation sparks motivation to commit crime, a point that is further developed in Martin Sanchez Jankowski's more readable ethnographic study in the same volume.

These patterns are not new. The statement in Body Count that contemporary youth criminals are the worst that "any society has ever known" can charitably be described as historically uninformed. Frederic M. Thrasher's study of Chicago's youth gangs, first published in 1927, is the locus classicus of studies of youth crime. Yet in many critical respects, the "gangsters" studied by Thrasher track those of today. The two big differences were that the gang members had fewer deadly weapons in the 1920s and that the most prevalent groups were the Poles (37 percent), Italians (25 percent), and Irish (19 percent). Although Thrasher would doubtless have been comfortable calling gang members morally impoverished, he traced their lack of moral rectitude to living conditions. "The gang," he wrote, "occupies what is often called 'the poverty belt'—a region characterized by deteriorating neighborhoods, shifting populations, and the mobility and organization of the slum." Thrasher saw family breakdown as a stimulus to boys to join the gang, just as Sampson and Wilson do. The causal relationships have not changed since 1927; what's different is the color of the juveniles who commit the crimes, and the weapons they carry.



Rhetoric aside, criminologists, including DiIulio himself, agree that crime has no single cause. Similarly, the decline of crime between 1993 and 1995 also has no single cause. Here are some likely reasons for the decline:

  • The baby boomers, who in 1980 were about 16 to 34 years old, are now about 32 to 50, just about outgrowing the prime years for committing crime.
  • Killings among spouses have sharply declined, as society and the police have become less tolerant of domestic violence.
  • The prison population has tripled, incapacitating some violent criminals.
  • Some say that drug markets have stabilized, resulting in less gang warfare over territory. One of the paradoxes of policing has been that when major drug outfits are apprehended, others arise to war for their territory.
  • Improvements in trauma medicine have cut homicide rates by saving many gunshot victims who might have died in the past.
  • The Brady Bill and other gun-control initiatives have reduced the easy availability of handguns. In New York City, for example, those who drink beer illegally in public places know they may be searched and therefore don't carry guns. If they fight, and don't have a gun, they can't shoot.
  • Unemployment is down, resulting in lower poverty and greater social and family stability
  • .

Recent experience doesn't tell us that get-tough policies are the only effective way to combat crime. On the contrary, institutionalizing youth criminals—whether in regular prisons or boot camps—scarcely influences recidivism once they are released back into the communities that were criminogenic in the first place. In his recent speech at New York University, DiIulio described how he has become heavily involved in supporting Philadelphia's African-American churches to bring boys and girls under the churches' influence and mentoring guidance—which is admirable and shows that tough guy DiIulio can be a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Where I part company with Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters is the suggestion that get-tough measures combined with religious revival are the main directions for policy that federal, state, and local governments should follow. Certainly we need to revitalize community groups—not only churches but also schools, civic associations, and other neighborhood resources. We also need to reduce chronic joblessness in communities where crime and victimization are most pronounced. The remorselessness of some youthful offenders is all too real and, in some cases, tragically irreversible. But such underlying causes of juvenile crime as poverty, racism, and inequality cannot be addressed mainly by a summons to virtue. If we ignore those problems and look only to the prisons and the politics of rectitude to pull us out of criminality, then I agree: Crime will be on the rise, and look out!

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