Saturday, April 26, 2008

In St. Louis “crime is down, except for murder”

The Police Chief in St. Louis told the media he was proud that in St. Louis crime was down, “except for murder”; what a remarkable statement and what a strange thing to announce as an achievement.

This got me to think about crime in the United States so I did a little research.

First let’s consider who is in jail. As reported in the New York Times, the United States leads the world in prisoner production. There are 2.3 million people behind bars in our country. China, with four times as many people, has 1.6 million in prison. In terms of population, the United States has 751 people in prison for every 100,000, while the closest competitor in this regard is Russia with 627, the rate in Cuba is 531.

The recent trend is also amazing since most people jailed in the United States are due to drug laws. From 1925 to 1975, the rate of imprisonment was stable at 110, lower than the international average. But then it suddenly shot up in the 1980s; there were 30,000 people in jail for drugs in 1980, while today there are half a million.

Of course there are other crimes resulting in jail sentences because so much is criminalized in these modern times, including passing bad checks and the pettiest of thefts. Judges are under all sorts of minimum-sentencing requirements. Certainly it is necessary to jail some people. However when they are “doing time”, people in jail cost tax payers about $25,000 each, per year. It is expensive to house criminals; states alone spend $44 billion on prisons every year.

The modern prison system is also a relatively new phenomenon in history. Statistics show that we are mainly using the criminal system to enforce the drug war rather than punishing more serious crimes. This has become necessary because illegal drugs are now a $100 billion industry in the United States. The drug war itself cost taxpayers $19 billion.

The costs of running the justice system are skyrocketing; up 418% percent in 25 years. Ironically, the "crime" of drug use and distribution hasn't really been kept down; it has only gone further underground. It is also a major irony and commentary on the workability of prisons and our justice system that drug markets are very active in the world despite the huge enforcement efforts.

Personally I wonder what the cost of enforcing traffic laws is; surely this has become a thriving industry all by itself. For every one policeman looking for and apprehending real criminals, it seem so me there are a thousand on the roads looking for “traffic criminals”; (perhaps a slight exaggeration.)

Some social scientists say that all this is due to the lack of a "social safety net" in the United States but the United States has had such a porous net for a hundred years. I believe however that it is more likely the very presence of such a net creates a moral hazard so that people do not learn to be responsible for their own well being and that contributes to criminal behavior (all else being equal).

There are also those who attribute the increase to racial factors, given that the imprisoned population is disproportionately black and Hispanic, and noting the disparity in crime rates in places with low minority populations like Minnesota. One suggestion comes from liberal political analysts who observe the “politicization” of judicial appointments in the United States (meaning appointment of “law and order” judges). Another factor may be the lobbying power of the prison industry itself. The old rule is that if you subsidize something, you get more of it. And so it is with prisons and the prison-industrial complex. It’s not clear how large these industries are, but consider that they include construction firms, managers of private prisons, wardens, prison guards with a very strong union, food service providers, counselors, security services, and 100 other kinds of companies to build and manage these institutions. What kind of political influence do they have?

Also, remember that every law on the books, every regulation, every line in the government codebook, is ultimately enforced by prison. The jail cell is the symbol and ultimate end of social stability itself.

Robert Ingersoll wrote:

“The world has been filled with prisons and dungeons, with chains and whips, with crosses and gibbets, with thumb-screws and racks, with hangmen and headsmen — and yet these frightful means and instrumentalities and crimes have accomplished little for the preservation of property or life. It is safe to say that governments have committed far more crimes than they have prevented. As long as society bows and cringes before the great thieves (government and politicians), there will be little ones enough to fill the jails.”

What do you think; is Ingersoll right?

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