Prison boom results in less crime
6/19/2001 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg
If I really, really want to, I can kill you. Even if you know some kung-fu technique to remove my still-beating heart, if I'm sufficiently determined I can murder you to death, as the saying goes. This goes for robbing, burglarizing, and even excessive mopery. Almost nothing can stop me.
The law is only useful for preventing crimes among people who respect the law. In fact, only two things can definitely keep me from committing a crime: prison or death.
Of the two, death, of course, is the most sure-fire. Not only do dead men not tell tales, they don't do anything else either.
Still, in a pinch, prison will do just fine. People in prison never rob banks and they never pillage the Qwik-E-Mart. While people do commit crimes while incarcerated (especially some icky ones we won't discuss here), the victims of these crimes tend to be other criminals. That doesn't make it right, but I don't see you getting outraged enough to write your congressman.
Seem obvious? Alas, liberal criminologists and the journalists who love them insist that prisons have no positive effect on the crime rate, despite the fact that the United States has been building, and filling, prisons at an unprecedented pace while the crime rate has been dropping at an unprecedented rate.
The most famous of the willfully obtuse is Fox Butterfield of The New York Times. Over the years, Butterfield has written a slew of articles in which he expresses genuine amazement that crime rates would go down as more people go to prison.
Every year when the Justice Department releases annual crime statistics, Butterfield writes more or less the same thing. Indeed, the headlines say it all. Last August he wrote, "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction." Butterfield worries that "the prison boom has become self-perpetuating," as the government arrests more and more people unworthy of incarceration, namely non-violent drug offenders.
The problem with this analysis is that, despite what you hear from fans of the movie "Traffic" or read in Rolling Stone, there are not that many non-violent drug offenders or non-career criminals in our prisons.
For example, in 1997 - a boom year for incarceration - more than half the increase in the prison population was made up of violent criminals. Violent criminals, everyone agrees, belong in jail.
The data on drug dealers is a bit murkier, in part because many criminals cop to lesser drug charges as part of their plea bargains and many career criminals violate their parole due to drug crimes.
Still, prisons haven't been overflowing with non-violent, first-time drug offenders. The latest numbers, also from 1997, show that only 8.8 percent of the more than 1 million people in state prisons (where 90 percent of all prisoners reside) were there for drug possession. Drug trafficking made up another 11.3 percent, while violent crimes made up a whopping 42.7 percent.
Aha! But what about the federal prisons we hear so much about? Well, there, only a meager 2.2 percent of criminals were imprisoned solely for drug possession. The idea that our prisons are filled with harmless stoners is a myth.
This year, when the government's reports on the crime rate came out, it seemed Butterfield wouldn't be able to write the usual headlines. The two major measurements of crime in the United States are the FBI's Uniform Crime Report and the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The UCR, which measures crimes reported to the police, showed the first leveling off in dropping crime rates in eight years.
But just this week, the NCVS, which interviews 160,000 households, concluded that we've had the largest annual drop in crime in history, 15 percent for violent crime and 10 percent for property crimes.
Why the discrepancy? Well, the statisticians and criminologists haven't completely figured that out yet. And the two studies never have been in lockstep.
But two things are clear from both studies: The percentage of people who (ital) feel (end ital) safer is getting larger and the number of people who feel that it's worth the effort to report crimes to the police has grown, especially in poorer black and Hispanic communities.
The idea that the prison population is "self-perpetuating" has a depressing and possibly racist assumption at its foundation. In this scenario, crime is a rational course of action for "oppressed" minority groups. Young black men choose crime because they have no other choice. And for every kid you put in jail, another one takes his place. The racist implication is that all blacks become criminals when the opportunity arises.
The truth is that relatively few people are willing to commit crimes. Criminologist Marvin Wolfgang of the University of Pennsylvania concluded in a famous study that perhaps as few as 7 percent of males are responsible for between half and two-thirds of all violent crime.
The conclusion remains obvious: When these people are in prison, they can't murder you.