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Elliot Currie Interview

Elliot Currie is a lecturer in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. He participated in Presidential Crime Commissions under President Johnson in the late 1960's. 

He is the author of Crime and Punishment in America; Reckoning: Drugs, the Cities, and the American Future, and Confronting Crime.

Elliot Currie

New River Media Interview with: Elliott Currie 
Lecturer, Legal Studies Program, University of California at Berkeley 
Author, Crime and Punishment in America

QUESTION: What happened to crime in America in the 1960's? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: Crime rates went up very dramatically in the 1960s. They had been quite low during the Second World War, during the 1950s and up through the middle 1960s, and then pretty much skyrocketed. So much so, particularly for violent crimes and for stranger-to-stranger crimes, that we had a President, Richard Nixon, who pretty much got elected on a platform of the need to cut crime in the streets. 

What caused the sharp increase in crime during the 1960s is a pretty complicated set of events. Some people think that it's fairly peculiar that crime went up in the '60s because after all we were an affluent society with prosperity booming all around. The economy was doing very well. And while all this was true, there were other things happening at the same time beneath it. We had people flooding into the cities, mostly people who had been agricultural workers, who were now casualties of the mechanization of agriculture, particularly in the South. They were now coming up to the cities looking for unskilled jobs, the kind that they could do, which were on the decline as a result of the beginnings of de-industrialization of the cities. 

So you had a peculiar situation in which on the one hand some people were doing very, very well, and much better, in fact, than they had probably ever dreamed, but a variety of people, and lots of people, not just a few of them, were being pretty well excluded from that kind of general affluence and prosperity. 

QUESTION: What effect did the rise of crime have on the cities? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: I think that the rise in crime in the late 1960s really transformed the cities. And if you're old enough to think back at how cities looked before the late 1960s you can realize that some things, which we now take for granted, were not even imagined as part of our natural way of urban life before the mid to late 1960s. For example, the President's Crime Commission back in the late 1960s wrote that if we weren't careful we would become a nation where there were fortified cities and where you had to be accompanied by policemen if you went downtown, and where there would be apartment buildings with elaborate security systems. There would be security systems in your parking garage. Well, of course there are. And everyone who lives today in the cities takes these for granted. But in the early '60s you didn't. People changed their behavior as well. They changed it quite dramatically. When I was a kid you could walk around in the cities. I grew up in Chicago. It was a little bit scary, but parents let their kids walk around in the neighborhood. Now kids of the same age in the same kind of neighborhood don't get to walk around. Older people don't walk outside of their homes. Big changes in the quality of life in our cities. 

QUESTION: Do we have any control over crime rates? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: One of the things that I think is one of the great myths that we began to hear about crime, particularly during the 1970s was that we weren't able to control it, that we didn't understand where it came from, that maybe it had something to do with our fundamental human nature in ways that we couldn't possibly control. Maybe it had to do with our genes, some kind of biological defect, what have you, but we couldn't control it. 

But more and more we are beginning to understand that we do know a variety of ways in which we can control crime, beginning with ways in which we can reform our criminal justice system to make it more effective and less counterproductive, moving onto the use of prevention programs for kids and families and for teenagers, many of which we know work and we know why they do, and moving onward to doing something about the massive social deficits in American society, which ultimately are the root cause of the really severe and highly unusual levels of violent crime that we have, as compared with otherwise comparable societies around the world. 

And it's very important to keep in mind that the level of serious violent crime that we suffer in the United States and have suffered since the late 1960s is not one that's common to other industrial societies around the world. This is pretty much something that's unique to the United States among the developed countries. To find our level of violent crime you've got to go to places like Brazil, Venezuela, parts of Mexico. So there are reasons why our society has a level of violent crime that it does, and we can tackle those reasons if we have the political will to do so. 

QUESTION: Has the massive incarceration of criminals had any effect on crime and what are the ramifications? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: You can't lock up humongous portions of your population and not have some effect on the crime rates. So the real question about the effect of incarceration on crime is how much of an effect at what cost, both in material terms and in social values. And on those counts I think the verdict on incarceration as a social policy for controlling crime is really in: You can accomplish some crime reduction with it, particularly for certain kinds of crime, but as a cost-effective system it fails the test. And I think it also fails the test of social values. 

The most obvious problem with the notion that the thug in prison can't shoot your sister is that the thug had to shoot your sister or otherwise do somebody great harm in order to get into prison in the first place. So as a preventive device, as a way of keeping crime from happening in the first place, it obviously falls flat. 

There's a sense in which in our efforts to control crime through this social policy of massive increases in incarceration, in our effort to do that we've created something like a monster, which is now part of the problem. Now you have to keep in mind that back in the late 1960s, early 1970s we had approximately 200,000 people in the United States locked up in our state and federal prison systems. We now have about 1.3 million, so it's a huge increase. And if we look back in our history there's simply nothing like it, nor is there anything really like this in the history of any other industrial society. And so you're seeing something, which is absolutely unprecedented. 

And to make this happen you first of all have to spend an awful lot of money, and that's money that you could have spent doing other things. 

Even more importantly to my mind is what this does to the fabric of our community life. You can't take as many people, particularly young men, and increasingly young women, as we have taken them from some communities in our society, particularly inner city communities, you can't put that many people in prison for that long without having dramatic impacts on the whole way of life in those cities, and on the way in which children are raised, for example, or not raised. 

So pretty soon you begin to get a situation that is self-defeating, that is counterproductive. As you take away stable adult males from the community, as you take away the mothers of children, and we don't think very much about, okay, what's going to happen now, to those families, what's going to happen to those children as they grow up? 

What's going to happen also to these masses of people, mostly poor unskilled young men, who we've taken off the streets, put for a significant amount of time behind bars - and now they're going to come out? That's what we keep forgetting is that most of them will indeed come out. Most of them have had very little help, very little effort to deal with the underlying problems that got them into prison in the first place. Now they're coming out without much help and back to the same kind of communities that spawned them in the first place. What's going to happen? 

QUESTION: What happened to crime rates during the 1990s? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: Crime rates have declined in the 1990s. Much is made of this. The decline is very real and in some places it's quite dramatic. It's important to remember that the declines, however, follow one of the most extraordinary rises that we've ever seen in our history, a rise that matches that in the late 1960s, so that beginning in the middle of the 1980s we had particularly among youth, a very, remarkable, dramatic, tragic increase in serious violent crime. That lasted up until the early 1990s. So if you look at this on a graph, it isn't some kind of steady drop. It's a fall-off from a peak that was itself quite high. 

So what you're seeing is a return to the kinds of levels that we had in the mid-1980s, that we had in the late 1960s, keeping in mind that in the mid-1960s we had rates of violent crime that were very frightening to the people who lived at that time, and that we thought constituted a major, major social crisis. So we don't have much to crow about since we have returned to the levels that we had then. 

Why we have the declines in crime in the 1990s is a very complicated picture. For my money, the most important single factor has to do with the health of the economy, because what this has done is the vast numbers of jobs that we have created have actually reached far down the social ladder. So that a lot of people, particularly young men, who until the beginning of the 1990s were likely to be outside of the labor force altogether, are now being pulled into the labor force - not necessarily in such wonderful jobs, but in jobs that are legitimate, that give them a sense of participation in the legitimate economy. They are working in jobs that take them off the street, which is a dangerous place to be for them and others around them, that take them out of bars and out of the drug trade and so on. So a very dramatic improvement in the lives of those people. 

And if you look at how the crime rates have declined in relationship to the decline of the unemployment rate among young inner city men, for example, you see them tracking each other very, very closely. 

QUESTION: What is the theory of "broken windows," and what effect has it had on criminology? Has it been a factor in the recent decline of crime? 

ELLIOTT CURRIE: It's often argued that one of the main reasons for the decline in crime in the 1990s is the the crackdown on minor offenses, the so-called quality of life offenses that has taken place particularly in cities like New York where there has, in fact, been a very significant decline in crime. And so some people will argue that focusing on things like homeless people in the street, rowdy youth hanging around on street corners, squeegee men coming up to your cars and wanting to wash your windows. If you deal with those problems, then you will ultimately be dealing also with the causes of violent crime. 

This kind of policy of enforcing the law very strictly against low-level offenses, and even kinds of quality of life disturbances, which may not even be violations of the criminal law, does descend in part from a very influential theory developed some years ago by Professors James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, which says that when you allow the overall quality of life in a neighborhood to decline, you know, you let buildings stand around with broken windows, you let rowdy people hang around in the streets and so on, that pretty soon this starts a spiral in which criminal elements from outside begin to see the neighborhood as vulnerable. People in the neighborhood cease to take very good care of the neighborhood and cease looking out for one another. And the argument then is that downward spiral ultimately leads to results in much higher rates of serious violent crime, usually referred to as the broken windows theory, which is what Wilson and Kelling called it. 

My own feeling about this is that certainly there has to be some truth to that. Neighborhoods that are allowed to deteriorate probably will attract a great deal of crime. I don't think however that the enforcement of these quality of life laws has much to do with the decline in serious violent crime in the '90s. It doesn't make a lot of sense. The reason why serious violent crime declines doesn't have much to do with the sort of arrest and the constant re-circulation through the criminal justice system of minor offenders, because those are not the people who commit violent crimes. There are other reasons for the decline in violent crime that I think are considerably more important. 

One of the reasons I think we need to be somewhat skeptical of this theory as an explanation of the falling rates of violent crime in recent years is that if you look at various cities across the country, a few of them actually have invoked this kind of quality of life enforcement. Most others have not. So that if you look at a city like New York they've done a lot of this and crime has fallen a great deal. That might make you think that the theory works. However, you can look at a number of other cities, including Los Angeles, I would say San Francisco to a certain extent, and many others, you've seen very dramatic declines in crime, but you don't see the same kinds of police practices. So that I think is some cause for skepticism. 

QUESTION: Why does America have such high crime rates compared to, say, Western Europe? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: For the most part in our debate about crime and crime control policy in the United States we tend to think of ourselves as kind of an insulated, isolated country. We don't look comparatively at the experience of other comparable countries. And I think that's a big mistake, because when we do we see a number of very startling things, which I think give us clues as to why we have the crime problem that we do. First of all, it's extremely important to keep in mind that our crime problem, when it comes to serious violent offending, things like homicide, things like forcible rape, armed robberies, gun assaults, the rates of those kinds of crime in the United States, even after our period of decline in the 1990s, are astronomically higher than they are in most comparable industrial societies in Europe and in Asia. And that varies, of course, between those societies, but basically we stand out like a sore thumb in the world of the advanced industrial societies. And that should tell us something. That should give us hints as to what the problem is. 

And then if you continue to look comparatively you see some other things, which differ between us and those societies. You see, for example, that we tolerate much greater extremes of economic inequality, that we tolerate much deeper and more severe poverty, more widespread poverty in the United States than those other countries do, that we have a much more meager array of social services, and particularly very basic human services like healthcare when it comes to supplying these to the population as a whole. So we have some of the best healthcare in the world if you can afford it, but on the other hand we have vast numbers of people who don't have any preventive healthcare at all. 

All of these things I think from 100 years worth of criminological research, tremendously important in causing serious violent crime, and it's in that difference, it's in the extremes to which we subject some parts of our population, it's in the absence of the kinds of social supports that are routinely expected now in other advanced industrial societies that I think we can see the origins of that difference and why it sustains. 

QUESTION: And now let me go back to just restate the question we dealt with earlier, how much crime should America tolerate and what do you think we can do to reduce crime? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: There is a tendency I think in the public discussion of crime today to feel kind of self-congratulatory about the fact that crime has fallen. However, when we do that we are failing to look at ourselves in relation to the rest of the countries in the world, or in relation to our own history. We had a lot less crime than we do now up until the late 1960s. So the question is how much of this should we be tolerating? Should we be comfortable with this? Should we feel triumphal because we've arrived at this level of crime? I don't think so. I think actually our levels of crime, violent crime in particular are really quite intolerable. We shouldn't be complacent about them. We should aggressively go after their causes. We shouldn't imagine that simply by hiding a great deal of that problem by putting a lot of people behind bars that we have thereby solved it. 

I think that's one of the great myths of our time is the belief that we - by putting people behind bars we've eliminated the crime problem. We really haven't. We've moved it so that it's now behind bars waiting to come out, but we haven't eliminated it. There are things that we could do to lower that crime rate. It is not simply coincidental that we have a far higher crime rate than other industrial societies, which have engaged in certain social policies and economic policies, which we tend to fiercely resist. And I think as long as we insist on maintaining the levels of inequality, the social deficits, the extremes of poverty, the absence of social safety nets that we tolerate in this society, then we're going to have a high crime rate. But it's terribly important to understand that that high level of violence isn't necessary, it isn't inevitable, it's not fated. It's something that on some level we are choosing to tolerate. 

QUESTION: What can we do to reduce crime in America? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: When we talk about reducing crime in the United States, I think we often tend to focus on one kind of thing in particular, so that some people will focus on the need to develop better police strategies and some people will focus on reforming the prison system. Some people will focus on the need to develop better preventive programs for kids and families. Some people will talk about reducing poverty and developing job-training programs. I think the secret to an effective anti-crime policy in the United States is going to be we have to do all of those things. We have to work on all of those levels simultaneously. 

If we take, for example, what goes on in our prison system today, we have packed about two million people in our prisons and jails in the United States. We gave virtually no thought to what was going to happen to those people when they come out and get back on your streets and in your community. One of the things that we most obviously and most simply need to do was to develop programs to try and help those people succeed in the legitimate world when they get back. And we know what some of those are. It's not rocket science here really. 

We know that drug treatment, for example, is a humongously important part of this picture. We know how to do drug treatment, not for everybody, but for a significant number of the offenders who go behind bars with a drug problem, that's probably upwards of 60 percent of the offenders in our state prison systems, for example. Well, we know how to treat those people behind bars and to give them after care when they come out and to give them some job training and help with family problems and so on when they come out. And we know that when we do that we have very high rates of success. They are much, much less likely to go back to prison or go back to a life of crime. 

Outside of the prison system, we know something about how to prevent some of the early family problems that are so heavily implicated in serious violent crime. We know how to prevent child abuse among a lot of families. That is probably the single most important social program that we can invest in, things like home visiting programs, which send public health nurses or para-professionals out to work with high risk families to deal with the stresses, deal with the problems that are likely to lead to child abuse and neglect. If we do that and we cut the rate of serious child abuse in our society we are going to cut the rate of serious violent crime, particularly the worst kinds of crime, the kinds that scare us the most. All of these are things that we know how to do. 

QUESTION: How has crime been politicized of late? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: One of the most unfortunate things about the way we talk about crime in the United States today is that in a sense politics has trumped science when it comes to our public debate, so that an awful lot of people who were in positions of some influence and authority no longer talk about what's true when it comes to crime or what our evidence tells us, our research tells us, but what they think the public wants to hear. And they tend to believe, although they're not necessarily right about this, they tend to believe that the public is quite punitive and only wants to hear talk about getting tougher and tougher on crime. They don't think the public will sit still for explanations of the causes of crime. They don't think the public is interested in the prospects for the rehabilitation of criminals or the development of prevention programs. And so we don't have a real debate about those things. Instead we have politicians vying with one another to see who's going to be the toughest. And that extends, of course, all the way up the political ladder to the very top. And I think what that does is really eviscerate the debate about crime in our society today. 

If you take my own state of California for example where we have a number of harsh criminal justice policies that have been passed in recent years, including our famous or infamous "three strikes and you're out" law, I don't believe that there is a single criminologist in the United States that I could name who really believed that that law would have a very beneficial impact on our crime problem, and who was not quite worried, in fact, about the negative impact that it would have on our criminal justice system. But virtually none of that concern passed into the level of political debate. And indeed you could go to the halls of the legislature in Sacramento and you could sit legislators down, you could ask them if they had paid any attention to the research on this matter. And they say they knew about the research, but they couldn't possibly talk about it in the political climate today. 

One of the things that is part of the myth of crime control in the 1990s is that the public is uniformly punitive about crime. It turns out if you look at the more careful opinion surveys that have been done about crime in the last several years you see that the public is much, much more flexible, much, much more interested in a variety of approaches to crime and its control than we imagine it to be. 

QUESTION: Is this a recent phenomenon? 

ELIOTT CURRIE: Back in the 1960s and the 1950s there was at least a rhetorical kind of lip service to the idea of a preventive and rehabilitative justice system, to the idea that we had to deal with the social deficits in American society in order to really deal with the crime problem, the idea that we shouldn't simply warehouse offenders in prisons, but that we needed to do something to help them succeed when they came out. That was more rhetoric than it was reality, but at least there was the rhetoric. 

And what began to happen, beginning I'd say in the late 1960s and then accelerating quite dramatically in the 1970s was that we began to see a very different kind of rhetoric beginning to dominate the public space in the United States. And it was a rhetoric that said several things at once. It said that we didn't know how to rehabilitate offenders, so we shouldn't try, that they would only respond to fear and punishment, only respond to deterrence. It was a rhetoric that said that there weren't any social causes or economic causes of crime, or if there were we didn't know how to do anything about those causes anyway, kind of pooh-poohed the idea that things like unemployment or racial discrimination or poverty had anything to do with crime. 

And all of this rhetoric was actually quite wrong and it increasingly diverged from the consensus among serious criminological researchers at the time, but it became extraordinarily influential in the public debate, far out of proportion to its grounding in reality.


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