Violence in America
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RAY SUAREZ: The 1990′s have been a time of rapidly dropping violent crime numbers coming from all over the country. But a new report on violence in America has found that over the last 30 years, big city violent crime increased by 40 percent, fear of crime is up 30 percent, and firearms possession has increased over 120 percent.
Now, four views on these findings and the report’s suggested solutions. Lynn Curtis is the president of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation, which issued the report.
Joanne Page is executive director of the fortune society, a nonprofit organization that works with ex-offenders. She is a trustee of the foundation.
John Lott is a senior research scholar at Yale University Law School. He is the author of “More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws.”
Lawrence Sherman is a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He is director of the Fels Center of Government.
Lynn Curtis, why does the report seem to run so contrary to what we’ve heard almost throughout the ’90s, certainly over the last five years?
LYNN CURTIS: Because it takes a 30-year view instead of a shorter view. The original Violence Commission final report was titled “To Establish Justice to Ensure Domestic Tranquility.” And we have concluded in this report that we have done neither in terms of domestic tranquility, as you said, there has been a decline in the ’90s since the peaks in the ’80s.
But if you take a broader look, if you compare the late ’60s with the late ’90, the most optimistic you can say is that crime and fear have been about in the same ballpark, in spite of the fact that we’ve had a seven-fold increase in prison building.
The original Violence Commission also predicted that we would have a city of the future in which the middle class would escape to the suburbs, drive to work in sanitized quarters, would work in buildings protected by high tech. That is the study of the future come true. Our editorial in the Detroit Paper on Sunday said that was really Detroit. Domestic tranquility is roughly the same in spite of the increase in prison building.
On the other hand, we haven’t had an increase in justice. We have 25 percent of all our children, young children, living in poverty. We have the greatest inequality in terms of wealth and income and wages in the world. One of every three African-Americans is in prison, on probation or on parole at any one time, one out of every two in the city.
That is a direct result of the racial bias in our sentencing system, our mandatory minimum sentence, for example, crack-cocaine sentences are much longer, crack-cocaine used more by minorities. Cocaine is shorter, used by whites. The result is our prisons are full disproportionately with minorities. Yet, at the same time, prison building has become a kind of economic development policy for communities which send lobbyists to Washington.
Overall the National Academy of Sciences though says that the best you can say is the criminal justice response to violence is running in place. So neither a reduction in domestic tranquility, nor improvement in justice over 30 years rather than the short period of time.
RAY SUAREZ: Lawrence Sherman, this report in many of its chapters is as much a critique of American society and American criminal justice as it is a report on violence, and violent crime.
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: And I think the critique needs to be more sharply focused. The big change since 1969 when the homicide rate was about what it is today is the incredible concentration of homicide in increasingly isolated and segregated inner-city neighborhoods. On average when Miami was 80 degrees yesterday and Boston was 40, it was about 60 percent uncomfortable.
But you can get that same average with a huge spread of 120 degrees in Miami and 0 down in Boston. That’s pretty much what’s happened to homicide in the last 30 years. We now have incredibly safe parts of this country and incredibly dangerous parts and for reasons that both you and I have been trying to get people to pay attention too, Ray.
And that is the hollowing out of the inner cities of the older cities of this nation where so much of the homicide is concentrated. More than half of it is in just 50 cities alone, and those are the places that have taken the biggest hits from growing suburbanization, paving over an acre an hour and leaving behind poverty and violence that could be fixed if we would simply try repopulate our cities and make them more economically viable.
RAY SUAREZ: Ms. Page, the war on drugs comes in for a lot of attention in the report. Drugs have been blamed for the run up in crime, the run up in violence, but the report also sees the effort to stop drug use and stop drug supply as part of America’s problem.
JoANNE PAGE: Well I think that looking at the war on drugs is a very good place to start. In 1980 we were spending about a billion dollars on the war on drugs. Now we’re spending about 18 billion. We need to look at the cost of that war and what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained. The cost has been phenomenal both in terms of dollars and in terms of broken lives.
If you look at the increase in incarceration, what we’ve seen is that it’s largely been driven by the war on drugs. 65 percent of the people currently doing time in this country are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-involved offenses. And I think we need to look at whether this has worked.
What it’s done is in 14 states people lose the vote for life if they have a felony conviction. And we’re seeing more and more, particularly black Americans, arrested, incarcerated, and leaving incarceration with a felony conviction that cripples them for the rest of their lives.
What we’re also seeing is that it’s not working to bring down drugs. If you look at heroin, the price has gone down, the quality gone up, the average age of the user has gone down. We’re losing this war and we’re destroying a generation in doing it. I think what Mr. Sherman said is very telling because the people who are getting hurt most by violence, by homicide rates are also the ones being hurt most by the war on drugs because they’re the ones who end up in prison.
They’re the ones whose children end up with a higher chance of being locked up because that’s what happens to the children of people doing time. We’re doing a devastating job of people in the inner cities and people of color. And we’re incarcerating at a rate unprecedented in our history.
For almost 100 years — just about until the time of the Violence Commission — we incarcerated about 100 people out of every 100,000. We’re at six or seven times that right now. It’s devastating. In California it costs $1.5 million to lock up a single person under three strikes. More people are doing life, natural life, for marijuana possession in California than they are for murder, rape and robbery combined.
RAY SUAREZ: But Ms. Page if you take the era of stiffening sentences, of taking away opportunities for parole, in some states taking away good time, lengthening sentences, and you mentioned three strikes -
JoANNE PAGE: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: — that era also tracks with a tremendous drop in the rate of violent crime in a lot of these same parts of the country. Why shouldn’t we seek some relationship between those two statistics?
JoANNE PAGE: I think there’s an easy answer for that. And that is that in the ’80s, the early ’80s, we witnessed a massive rise in violence and homicide because of the crack epidemic. When that stopped, we saw a drop. And what we’re seeing right now after all of this investment in prison building and this massive attack on the basic right in a democracy to live in freedom, what we see is we’re not better than we were 30 years ago. If you look at this one bulge, we’re doing better, but not if you look over a longer term period. What we’ve got is a policy that not only doesn’t work but that breeds more and more destruction.
RAY SUAREZ: John Lott, the report also spends a lot of time talking about guns and the role they play in the commission of crimes. The emphasis in your research is a little different. Do you agree with some of the broad conclusions of this report?
JOHN LOTT: Well, I agree with some of them. I think that they’ve kind of overstated the case on how crime rates have changed over time. I think it depends o what measure. If you look at the National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime has been falling since the beginning of the Reagan administration.
The uniform crime report numbers indicate that basically they’ve been falling since 1991. I would also agree that I think drug enforcement has a lot to do with the crime rates. One of the reasons why we’ve seen the drop I think is because there’s been a reduction in federal law enforcement against drug offenses. You’ve seen drops in the prices of drugs, more drugs coming into the country and returns that gangs have to go and fight against each other in order to try to control drug turf has also declined with those declining profits.
One thing that most people don’t appreciate — and I think Larry and the others have touched on this — is how much murder in urban areas is due to gangs fighting against each other to control drug turf. 80 percent of the counties in the United States have zero murders in any given year, but I think not only does punishment matter though which I think is the other side — I think it’s wrong to ignore that — higher prison sentences, higher arrest rates, higher conviction rates matter — but also allowing individuals to defend themselves also matter.
The police simply can’t be there all the time. And I think it’s a mistake to go and just tell people they should be behave passively or what have you because that’s much more likely to result in serious injuries.
Those states that have had the biggest increases in gun ownership over time have had the biggest relative drops in violent crime across the board. You have many factors that are going to affect crime, but I think this study isn’t really a study in the normal sense when I read through this. It’s kind of a wish list of things that we’d like to be done but there’s not really serious scholarship I would say in terms of trying to measure which factors have affected crime rates.
RAY SUAREZ: Lynn Curtis?
LYNN CURTIS: A recent review of Mr. Lott’s book in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that it got failing grades in terms of its policy analysis — so have six other reviews by eleven other leading experts so I don’t think he’s very credible.
JOHN LOTT: I completely….
LYNN CURTIS: I think it’s important to focus on what doesn’t work and what does work. I think our policy should be to stop doing what doesn’t work and to start doing what does work but on a scale equal to the dimensions of the problem.
JOHN LOTT: My measure…. you have campaign finance reform, spending morn public schools, rehabilitation of criminals — gun control. I can agree with some of those things about the fact that public schools in urban areas have been a disaster but it’s not clear to me that throwing more money at it is going to do it. Why not introduce competition? Look at the university system in this country.
JoANNE PAGE: I think you should look at the university system.
JOHN LOTT: It’s the best university system in the world and it’s because universities have to compete against each other to get students. For local public schools, why is competition for our universities good but somehow we don’t want to allow competition between schools in these high-crime urban areas where students are condemned to this horrible public school system?
RAY SUAREZ: Let me hear from Joanne Page and then Mr. Sherman.
JoANNE PAGE: The real issue is about where we’re choosing to invest. And California in the past 20 years they’ve built 2 prisons and one university. The real question is if you’re trying to fight violence, you should have one leg of the stool be prevention, one leg of the stool be punishment and one leg of the stool be rehabilitation.
All we’re doing is punishment. We’re not investing in crime prevention. Good schools, drug treatment, mental health services are prevention. We’ve got a situation in the war on drugs where only 10 percent of the money gets spent on treatment for hard-core drug users. We’ve had a study recently by RAND saying that spending a dollar on drug treatment is seven times more effective than spending money on law enforcement.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me go to Lawrence Sherman at that point.
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: I want to take issue with both the report and with Dr. Lott. I think that the evidence with respect to police tactics designed to reduce gun carrying on the streets, illegal gun carrying in most of the big cities, where homicide is heavily concentrated, the evidence shows that those efforts pay off enormously and that there’s good reason to believe that had a lot to do with the two-thirds massive reduction in New York City which….
JOHN LOTT: No.
LAWRENCE SHERMAN: … Lowered the homicide rate substantially for the united states as well as certainly for New Yorkers so that the report’s attack on policing efforts– and it vaguely characterizes them at zero tolerance– but policing efforts that are designed to useful enforcement focused on street corners, high-crime hot spots, street corners that have massive concentrations of crimes.
That kind of focused policing which is not necessarily community-friendly policing in the sense of just going to meetings and talking to people but it is focused on things like full enforcement of jay-walking statutes or driving statutes or anything else. And while unfortunate consequences can occur in that sort of effort in places like Prince Georges County it’s actually been done with a reduction in complaints against the police. It can be done politely and respectfully, and getting the guns off the streets has consistently in an experimental sense with a capacity to reduce gun use in crime, gun injury associated with crime.
JOHN LOTT: No.
RAY SUAREZ: I’m going to end it there.
JOHN LOTT: Just this summer there were 294 academics in economics, law, criminology, that signed an open letter to Congress saying that many of the gun-control laws that we’ve had have actually been a cause of more crime.
RAY SUAREZ: We’re not going to be able to settle the gun control debate right now. Thank you all for being with us.