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

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
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

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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
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
  • 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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