Monday, March 05, 2012

what's america's real crime rate?

economist | IF YOU start feeling good about America, run don't walk to Adam Gopnik's damning New Yorker feature on the land of the free's penchant for imprisonment:
For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
Absolute quantities can be misleading, but the trend in the incarceration rate is equally unsettling. As Mr Gopnik reports, "...in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that." Read Mr Gopnik's essay and see if you don't agree that "The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life."

But what if locking away all these people has made America notably safer for those of us on the sunny side of the razor-wire? Mr Gopnik, drawing on the work of Franklin Zimring, a law professor at Berkeley, tries to debunk the idea that mass imprisonment accounts for more than a small part of the remarkable decline in America's crime rate over the past several decades. While I'm sympathetic to Mr Gopnik's argument that a combination of improved policing tactics and ineffable changes in the culture account for the greater part of the decline in America's crime rate, I'm even more impressed with Christopher Glazek's argument, set forth in a fascinating n+1 essay, that once we've accounted for all the undocumented crime terrorising the denizens of Lockuptown, the crime rate is not really so low. Mr Glazek writes;
Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.
Unfortunately, there is little hard data on the Lockuptown crime rate.