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GWEN IFILL: Crime continued its nationwide decline for the eighth straight year, the FBI reporting that every region of the country reported a drop in serious crime last year. “Serious” crime is defined by the Bureau as homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, car theft and arson. But what’s behind those falling numbers? We ask four experts on crime and punishment: Frank Zimring, a law professor and director of the Earl Warren Institute at the University of California at Berkeley; Katheryn Russell, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland; Jack Riley, director of the criminal justice research program at RAND, a public policy research organization; and Randy Barnett, a former prosecutor in Cook County, Illinois — he now teaches at Boston University’s School of Law. Mr. Riley, we hear these numbers and we never know what to make of them so maybe you can help us with this. What do they mean?
JACK RILEY: Well, I think you have to look for something that would help explain why crime fell rather substantially across most of the country and at approximately the same time. And there are very few things that can meet those two criteria in terms of explaining what happened to crime. I would point first to demographics. There’s been a rather substantial change in the number of people in the age 15 to 24 bracket that commit most of the crimes here in the country or that are most likely to commit crime, and the second factor is probably economic growth in combination with reduced opportunities in drug marketing and drug trafficking because of declines in drug use.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Russell, let’s talk about another one of those issues which people are attributing to this drop which is the building of more prisons, the higher rates of incarceration.
KATHERYN RUSSELL: Yes. At last count there were close to two million people behind bars in the nation’s prisons at the federal level and at the state level, and we are rapidly seeing more and more people being locked up and for nonviolent offenses as well. So it’s not just these violent crimes that this drop is reflective of, but also for drug offenses and for nonviolent crimes as well.
GWEN IFILL: So we have a continuum of sorts when you talk about the decline in drug use and the increase in numbers of people in prison for drug use. So that takes me, Mr. Zimring, to the idea of the robust economy. How much does that have to do with it? Certainly these two things can’t be separate.
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, there is no single cause that is going to explain why it is that for the first time — essentially since the middle of the 20th century — we’ve had eight years of consecutive and cumulatively so large a decrease in crime. If it were the robust economy, which is certainly in better shape now than at any time in most of our adulthoods, then economic growth in the 1960s and early 1970s wouldn’t have been associated with the large crime increases. If it were demographics alone, then the early 1980s that started to have a little bit of a crime decline wouldn’t have seen a turnaround as rapidly as they did. If it were more prisoners, then by now we’d have a zero crime rate because we have been doubling and trebling steadily the incarceration controls in the United States since the middle of the 1970s. So in the first instance, rather than look for a single theory, maybe we ought to be like those pain-reliever advertisements and start thinking about a combination of ingredients. The demographic news has been fair to good; the economic news has been very good; our commitment and purchase of social control has been as intense as ever in the history of the country. But with all of that coming together, we still ought to feel both blessed and somewhat in a state of mystery as to why the news at the other end on the outcomes is as good as it is. I’m not going to tell you that the crime rate will continue because I don’t fully understand the good news that we’ve already experienced.
GWEN IFILL: How about that, Professor Barnett, do you agree? We don’t quite get all the reasons? Have we touched on all of them?
RANDY BARNETT: I do agree with what Frank has said. And I would also add to that there were two other things that we know. We know with confidence that a massive increase in the numbers of firearms that are possessed by Americans have not resulted in any increase in violent crime and have not resulted in any increase in murder. And we also know — we have good empirical support for the fact that in each of the 31 states that have enacted concealed carry laws that the violent crime rate in those states immediately went down faster than it went down in other states that did not enact those concealed carry laws. So we do know this challenges the conventional wisdom about the relationship between more guns equals more crimes that gun-control proponents were heavily touting in the ’60s when the crime rate and the gun-possession rate both were going up.
GWEN IFILL: The gun-possession rate, Professor Russell, certainly leaves the impression that people are more concerned about their safety than ever before. Why is it the fear factor remains so high at the same time that crime rates seem to be going down?
KATHERYN RUSSELL: Well, I’m glad you asked that question, Gwen, because it is the case that is public is as fearful now as they were ten, twelve, fifteen years ago of crime, and I think part of it has to do with the salience of crime in the nightly news which we hear much about and also about where crime is. Crime is moving closer to us. I saw recently in advertisement– an advertisement for the Million Mom March. They showed a picture of the National Zoo shooting and made reference to the fact that — the caption was, “Is it close enough yet?” And I think that people believe that they are more at risk even though– I mean, year after year these studies come out that indicate, the statistics come out which indicate that crime is actually on the decline but there’s really a disconnect with the public in terms of the perception of crime. So we’re told we’re not supposed to use our horns anymore. We’re not supposed to look askance at anyone. It’s though there’s sort of an encroachment in our personal space. I think it’s directly tied to people’s perception of rates of crime.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Riley, is it also possible that by not being sure exactly why this is happening that people can’t feel reassured that the numbers are reliable?
JACK RILEY: I think absolutely, although you can look at the crime statistics and have a lot of confidence in what is being reported. Homicide is probably the easiest violent crime to keep track of because there’s usually a victim and it’s usually a very evident crime. And the numbers on homicide are very clear throughout most of the country that homicide rates are declining. Other crimes may be influenced — our perceptions of them may be influenced somewhat by people’s willingness to report, police record-keeping and tracking and so forth, but by and large, you know, I think we’re talking about a very real phenomenon here and yet, as Katheryn mentioned, there’s still reluctance to feel safe and declare a victory.
GWEN IFILL: So Professor Zimring, just explain this to me, just in December on this program we talked about– and many other programs– how an Eisenhower Foundation study had shown that crime, violent crime had jumped 40% in the past 30 years. How does that jibe with what we’re hearing today?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: Well, it doesn’t jibe. What happens there is that you use a different base rate there. If you want to go back to 1963 or 1964 before there was a doubling of violent crime in the United States, that’s what happened between the mid ’60s and the mid ’70s, then you could find times when this was a safer country than it is in the year 2000. After 1974, we then went through a holding pattern for at least 20 years in this country where we were fluctuating a bit down and then back up to the peaks that we established in the mid 1970s, and it really was 1995 or 1996 before the cumulative declines that started in the early ’90s made it clear to us that we were now breaking new ground on the down side.
But this is still a country that has both crime and lethal violence rates which are higher than some other countries. I think that the public anxiety is not focused on crime generally. I think that that is a fear of lethal violence in the United States, and there was a bumper sticker some years ago that was going around in Northern California that said that one nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. And I think that when you see citizen fear, that can be fed as much by an episode like Columbine, school shootings, or unexplained and inexplicable kinds of workplace shootings. The fear of lethal violence is not something which responds to rates per hundred thousand so much as to anxieties that if it happens anywhere that we care about, we’re still very concerned.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Barnett, there are basically two approaches to bringing down the crime rate: Either depending on who you talk to, prevention, say putting cops on the street or punishment, building more prisons. What do either of those approaches tell us how we can prevent this from happening again or to stop the crime rate from beginning to rise again — anything?
RANDY BARNETT: Well, I think prevention is extremely important. And none of us have talked so far about the kinds of preventive activities that I think have made a real difference over the last decade — for example, the vast increase in the number of private residential communities that have their own security, a reliance on shopping centers that have their own private security, as well as vast commercial office buildings that have their own private security. The number of private security agents that exist in this country are vastly increased over what we saw 20 years ago. Prevention, I think, is the untold story in why we’ve had a positive downturn in crime.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk, Professor Russell, about what happens in the future. You were talking about doubling the number of people who have been in jail in the last ten years to about two million. They’re going to get out of jail sometime. We talked about demographics, the echo boomers, the next boom of baby boomers which comes along; they’re all going to become of crime-committing age soon. Is this a big problem we should see in the future, or is there something we have learned from bringing down the crime stats that we can apply to what happens next?
KATHERYN RUSSELL: Well, I think the concern really has to be, as you said, what we’re going to do in the next ten years, in the next twenty years. And I think the focus has been on dealing with what’s going to happen with the youth who are going to mature and to be engaged in criminal offending. But I think the one thing we really haven’t talked about is the issue of race. And I think that’s something that always has to be addressed up front — addressed directly when talking about crime and talking about disproportionate rates of offending, but also even higher than disproportionate rates of placing people behind bars. There’s been a lot that the FBI statistics don’t actually show. They don’t actually show the rising numbers of racial profiling or the fact of racial profiling, I should say, they don’t show what people are concerned about as far as interracial crime and so there’s issues of police violence. I mean, I read a study recently that indicated that in the last 10 years police across the country have killed more than 2,000 people, and that is something that has to be considered along with all of these figured about… all of these figures which clearly indicate and also what the national crime and victimization survey that crime is on the decline.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Riley, what do you think we’re not touching on?
JACK RILEY: Well, one of the issues associated with putting so many people in prison is that eventually they’re going to get out and many of them return to the community. Here in California, we annually parole about 125,000 people who return to the community. Many are illiterate, have poor job prospects, have untreated substance abuse problems. One consequence of these delinquencies or these insufficiencies is that a high number of them return to prison in a relatively short period of time. So I think a second component of prevention that we haven’t talked about is what do we do about the people who are exiting prison? What are their prospects? How do we prevent them from recidivating and heading back to prison?
GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Zimring, one final word from you, what is it that’s not being touched , what are we skipping over and trying to figure out how to bring these crime numbers down?
FRANKLIN ZIMRING: What I want to emphasize is the continuing mystery and let me tell you why. This is the first time in my lifetime that we’ve had a sustained decline of the kind that we have, and we get euphoric during this period of time and we say, “Hey, Eddie, what did we try last year, it obviously worked” whether it’s private security or more prisons or prevention or whatever. The truth is that this is an opportunity to learn for the first time in at least half a century what the dynamics of a genuine crime decline are in an American society and I hope that we can keep our eyes and our ears open and not let the good news be overexplained by wishful thinking.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll leave it there for tonight. Thank you, everybody, very much.