HomeAbout Think TankAbout Ben WattenbergPrevious ShowsWhere to WatchSpecials


Watch Videos and Listen to Podcasts at ThinkTankTV.com

  « Back to Rethinking Violent Crime main page
TranscriptsGuestsRelated ProgramsFeedback

Transcript for:

Rethinking Violent Crime

Funding for Think Tank is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(opening animation)

Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Overall crime rates in America have been dropping for more than a decade. But now, according to the FBIís latest crime figures, murder and mayhem are taking a jump in some of the nationís largest cities including Los Angeles, Detroit, Phoenix, Boston, and Washington, DC. Why? What do we know about the root causes of violent behavior?

To find out, Think Tank is joined by:

Lonnie Athens, professor of criminal justice at Seton Hall University, author of The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals and co-editor of Violent Acts and Violentization

And Dr. Stanton Samenow. clinical psychologist in Alexandria, Virginia, and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

The topic before the House: Rethinking Violent Crime. This week on Think Tank.

(musical animation)

Wattenberg: For much of the twentieth century, discussions about imprisoning violent criminals moved from a focus on punishment to rehabilitation.

But rehabilitation proved elusive. In 1975 a study of prison rehab programs showed that they had little effect in keeping convicted criminals from returning to a life of crime.

Since then, tough new sentencing guidelines have put more than two million convicted criminals behind bars.

From 1900 until the early 1970s, the incarceration rate remained relatively stable at about 110 prison inmates per 100,000 people. But by 2001 there were 470 inmates for every 100,000 people.

Does putting more people in jail reduce violent crime? Or is there a way to prevent people from becoming violent criminals in the first place?

WATTENBERG: Lonnie Athens and Stanton Samenow, welcome to Think Thank. Weíre delighted to have you here. You have each written prolifically about this issue of violent crime which I, as a sometime student of politics in America, know has been one of the overriding concerns of the American people. And I wondered if we could begin just with a brief, but not too brief, statement of what is the current state of your thinking about violent crime in America. Here are these FBI figures showing that itís going up in the major cities. Will that be a precursor or - whatís your take?
ATHENS: If we look at the history of the rates on violent crime, it has blips going up and down. We also had a high period during the prohibition era. The rates of criminal homicide went up and then they went down in the 1950s. They started going up at the latter part of the 1960s, then hit a peak at the 1980s, stayed pretty high to the uh, through the 1990s and now we see it going down again. So we do have these blips.

WATTENBERG: Except in the big cities.

ATHENS: Except the big cities and perhaps itís being displaced to middle size cities.


ATHENS: One possibility that we canít rule out is manipulation of the statistics. Fox Butterfield, the investigative reporter from New York Times, has investigated this issue and written some interesting pieces on it. But the other thing is I think the other thing that can change it is the changing marketplace, the changing demand for labor in the criminal marketplace. The criminal marketplace produces violent people, and it needs violent people because they canít settle their disputes by civil means, so they always have to take the law in their own hands. So by the very nature of their business they tend to create a certain amount of violence.

SAMENOW: Human nature hasnít changed. Weíve had violent crimes since the dawn of mankind.

WATTENBERG: Since Kane and Abel.

SAMENOW: Exactly. And the environment in which a person lives can make crime easier or harder to commit; greater or lesser deterrence. But, the criminal mind remains unchanged. Crime resides within the individual. It is the result of the way a person thinks

ATHENS: I agree with Stan that you know, violence is part of human nature. But if we look at the larger historical trends going back to medieval Europe, actually our violent crime rate has gone way down. And I donít think we can ignore this fight. And even though we think, and thinking is very important and I know Stanton makes a lot of that and itís very important, the environments weíre reared in can affect the thoughts we have.

WATTENBERG: Is this generally a safe country to grow up in? I mean if you mind your pís and qís?


ATHENS: I would say it depends on where you live.
Some environments in the social landscape are much more violent and dangerous than others.

WATTENBERG: Do you think that the drop in violent crime during the 1990s was due to the increase in incarceration and these 'three strikes youíre out' kinda laws?

SAMENOW: Well I think there is something to the quote, 'getting tough on crime' having something to do with fewer criminals being on the streets. The concentration on people who are one-man walking crime waves, identifying those people, arresting them, sentencing them and giving them long sentences I think is extremely important.

WATTENBERG I recall one study that every violent criminal who goes back on the street commits thirteen additional violent crimes before he gets re-apprehended.

SAMENOW: Oh, absolutely. What a person is caught for is the tip of a massive iceberg of other crimes, so thatís absolutely true. So, again, the focus on those people who make crime a way of life and incapacitating those people I think has been contributory to reducing violent crime. You get them off the streets; theyíre not there.

WATTENBERG: If I said that you were the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court and the Governor all rolled up into one, this is your call - what would your policy options be that would help make this a safer society?

ATHENS: I donít think one policy fits all; one shoe fits all. So youíd have to tailor it to the community. Whether itís a malignant community; whether itís a turbulent community or whether itís a civil community. And youíd also have to tailor it to the degree of violence development of the particular individual. Are they a marginally violent person? Are they a violent person or are they an ultra-violent person? So that would determine what intervention you should use. Both in the community and with respect to the individual, him or herself.

SAMENOW: I did appear some years ago before a Senate Subcommittee and I said that I thought it would be important to try to understand more about the evolution of certain patterns of thinking and behavior and to try to study kids early and to intervene early...to do something actually meaningful in terms of prevention and early identification. Not tagging little kids as criminals - I am not saying that. But I am saying just as we try to prevent, identify and prevent early learning problems, physical problems and emotional problems. We can see that there are children who are becoming increasingly destructive in the world around them and to try to identify who those children are, not putting some horrible label on them, but trying to work with them either in small classrooms with trained counselors and to try to work with them at that time, I think that is really in the best nature of prevention before we have a one-man walking crime wave. I canít say thatís a national policy, but I do think that thatís an area that we need to work in.

ATHENS: I think we also need a general education program through the schools and the community. Many people have misconceptions that if somebodyís on your property and refuses to leave, you can shoot them. Many people have misconceptions about what self-defense is. A lot of confusion among young people about when force is used in sex. And I think the responsibility of our education system...

WATTENBERG: Itís the 'he said, she said' kind of an argument.

ATHENS: Right. To make citizenship, to teach them what are the basic rules or when you can use and not use violence against other people to counteract these myths rather than learning it on the street corner.

WATTENBERG: What do you each think of the idea that violent films and television and pornography and all that sort of stuff are increasing the crime rate?

SAMENOW: I strongly and emphatically disagree with that. What is critical is not what is on the screen. Although, personally I think thereís too much gratuitous violence and sex. What is critical is what is in the mind of the viewer. Sure there are copycat crimes, but for every copycat crime there are millions of people who have watched the same television program and to them itís entertainment. They would not think of enacting it. So, you know, thereís this whole list of things to blame and TV and violent movies are among them. And violent video games. The violence resides in the mind of the viewer. And of course people who are fascinated by violence, they gravitate to more and more of it.

ATHENS: I would just add this. That of course during the medieval period western society was much more violent than it is today and obviously...

WATTENBERG: Without television.

ATHENS: No television, no video, no radio. So you canít attribute it to the mass media.

WATTENBERG: So crime has always been with us and it always will be with us.

ATHENS: It will always be with us but it doesnít always have to be with us to the same degree. It doesnít always have to be a major problem. I mean, weíre never gonna live in Utopia where no one commits a crime. But we could reach a situation where crime is not a severe problem in society.

WATTENBERG: You grew up personally - Iíve been reading that Richard Rhodes book about your work--under some very violent circumstances.

ATHENS: Yes, thatís true. Thatís true.

WATTENBERG: Why donít you give us some examples of that?

ATHENS: Oh, Iíve seen people killed. Iíve seen, you know, peopleís eyes gouged out. Iíve seen plates broken over peopleís heads and Iíve seen people shot, stabbed to death. So, you know, Iíve seen these acts and Iíve had some background - Iíve known intimately the people who it was done to and Iíve known intimately the people who did it.

SAMENOW: But you didnít become that way. Youíre not violent

ATHENS: But I well could have been.

SAMENOW: But why didnít you?

ATHENS: Actually I was on my way to doing it and I just didnít go - I didnít complete the process of violentization. One of the reasons, Iím not that big as you can tell. And so thatís a hindrance, too when you get into the world of violence and practicing violence, and so that was one impediment. And another thing I had some mentors who told me that was the wrong way to go.

SAMENOW: See, I think he just helped me make my point and that is, although exposed to violence, although a witness to violence he said he had mentors to whom he listened. He made choices and my point is that crime and violent crime, it is a matter of a series of choices. There are people who have mentors and they disregard what their mentors are teaching them. He made a series of choices and I donít know his background, but he just said it. He made a series of choices to steer away from the violent environment.

ATHENS: But hereís what I think is the problem with that and I agree that criminals make choices but the degree of choice you have in becoming a violent criminalís not a constant. It varies. And people have to make choices under different circumstances. Everybody is not faced with the same circumstances. Everybody doesnít grow up facing somebody who pulls out a gun on him. Everybodyí does not grow up facing somebody hitting them with a baseball bat and therefore they donít have to make the choice whether I should fire back or get a baseball bat. So although we all make choices we arenít all confronted by the same harsh circumstances under which to make those choices and nobody makes the choice to be brutalized. Other people make that choice for them.

SAMENOW: Ben, let me just say this. I interviewed a woman whose father was in prison...

WATTENBERG: You have both spent time interviewing people in prison, is that correct?

SAMENOW: Correct.


SAMENOW: And let me just give this one very brief example. I interviewed a woman who had been a Red Cross worker for twenty years, responsible person. She had a father who was in prison, a brother who was in jail, another brother who was in prison, lived in a very, very difficult run-down part of Washington, D.C. I asked her, 'Why is it, with such terrible role models, even within your own family, temptation at your doorstep, why is it that you didnít follow in their path?' She responded in three words. 'I wasnít interested.' Now, if this woman had become a junkie, a thief, and a drug pusher, people in my field, psychology, after the fact would have said, 'Oh, of course. Look at the role models.' But that isnít what happened. She made choices to go against the negative role models.

WATTENBERG: Well, what is the current evidence within the criminology field now. Is there a relationship say, between crime and unemployment?

ATHENS: I donít think there is a, you know, a direct relationship. They have correlations but correlations are not causes.

SAMENOW: I will say emphatically there is not a relationship. There are many, many people unfortunately who are unemployed and they struggle and they have a terrible time, but by no means do most of them turn to crime. They try to resolve their difficulties in other ways. So remember Iím dealing with individuals and the choices they make. If you say, not you, but if one says 'unemployment causes crime, poverty causes crime', youíve got to account for the fact that most poor people are not criminals and many well-to-do ones are.

WATTENBERG: So you believe thereís a bad gene?

SAMENOW: Ben, I donít think that there is 'a' bad gene and I donít know that thereís anybody that says thereís a criminal gene like a bad seed. I think the point is that there are many aspects of the human condition that we do not know to cause or causes of that indeed it is a - it should be an open subject of inquiry as to whether there are genetic or biological predispositions. But Iím saying even if there are such predispositions it doesnít mean that one cannot intervene early and try to do something preventive.

ATHENS: But why do people make those choices?

SAMENOW: Well, let me quote two people. One man said to me, 'If you take my crime away, you take my world away.' Another said, 'Crime is like ice-cream. Itís delicious.' In both of these cases these individuals as far back as they or anyone else could remember, they rejected whatever forces were in their environment for obeying the law or living a responsible life. For them life had to be a series of searches for control, power, high-voltage excitement. They rejected the world of the responsible person. And this goes as far back as they or anybody else can remember. You ask me why, you ask me why. Iíll say I donít know and you can get ten experts on your program and youíre going to get maybe ten opinions.

ATHENS: That begs the question we still have to ask and you know, answer the question of why people make the choices they make. You just canít say they make that choice. And they donít make those choices in a vacuum. Certain neighborhoods, the violent crime rateís ten or twenty times um as great as another neighborhood. And you canít attribute - how can you explain that? Itís just they - keep saying that people made the choices in their minds. Itís something thatís gotta be beyond their minds. Something influencing their minds.

SAMENOW: Well, you know, everything in the environment has been blamed for crime. I have a file that lists everything including cholesterol, dungeons and dragons, cycles of the moon, global warming. You know, in my field, the psychological field has promulgated this view that itís forces outside the individual that propel them into crime. Look, you can approach this in one of two ways. You can put policemen on every street corner if you want to do that. In other words weíre talking about deterrence. Or you can start to work with trying to intervene, prevent early, because Iím telling you and Iím insisting that crime resides within the mind of the person.

ATHENS: Although crime is in the mind, it is not solely in the mind. And I think that violent criminals are made through a brutalization process during which they make choices but at certain points they have greater leeway to make choices than other parts. And it starts with the process of being brutalized. And they donít make the choice to be brutalized. Their brutalizers make the choices for them. Theyíre the subject of violent subjugation. Theyíre subject to personal horrification, where mentors violently coach them. Then in the second stage, if they get there, they get in a defiant stage, they become belligerent. And as a result of reliving their brutalization they have an epiphany that the only way they can stop their brutalization is to become violent themselves. And then they enter into a violent performance stage where they test their resolve. People come fearful in your presence and then you can come to embrace that, having experience of malevolency, deciding that you enjoy your violent notoriety. You delight in social trepidation

WATTENBERG: Not withstanding the punishment that may ensue.

ATHENS: Right. And then you decide at this point that for the slightest dominative provocation you will attack people with the serious intention of killing them or gravely injuring them. But hereís the irony. When they began the process they were just a hapless victim of brutalization, but at the end they become the ruthless aggressor who they earlier had despised. And so this is the context in which the decisions are made. Theyíre not made out of the blue. They are made in a larger social context and you canít ignore that. If you do youíre like a ostrich putting your head in the sand.

SAMENOW: Well, I would like to address one point here and I certainly agree that people do not choose to be brutalized, certainly. But again the responses to brutalization are many. Some people who are abused become withdrawn, they become depressed, some blame themselves, some become suicidal, some become more aggressive and. yes, my field, psychology has finally started to study people who transcend this. They are brutalized and they determine that thatís exactly what theyíre not going to do to others. So, I agree. Nobody asks to become a victim of violence. But people respond differently to what happens in life.

WATTENBERG: All right, so we have violent criminality in America. What do we do with these violent criminals? What do we do to make them un-violent?

SAMENOW: Well certainly there are very dangerous people who will reject and have rejected any opportunity to change and society has to be protected. They do have to be locked up. There are others where we still as a society must try to find more effective ways to help these individuals change and the main route to change is for a person to change the way in which he thinks. This means that we donít give up on what is called the rehabilitative ideal. That there are people who can change. But jobs, social skills, educational opportunities are insufficient. Because if thatís all you do youíll have a criminal with job skills rather than one without. One has to help these...

WATTENBERG: Or those great physical training programs they do in prison.

SAMENOW: Exactly. Exactly. Muscular criminals...

WATTENBERG: Strong criminals instead of weak criminals.

SAMENOW: So thinking patterns are critical and I am not suggesting, Ben, that you turn the crime problem over to an army of shrinks - psychologists and psychiatrists. But there are thousands and thousands of correctional counselors and people who are able and can be trained to work with some offenders. The problem is to differentiate between those who need to be locked up indefinitely and those with whom we can work.

WATTENBERG: Most criminal decisions in this country are not made on a federal level. Theyíre made at state and local levels. How good have the state and local operatives in this field of criminology have they been at their task. Have they been doing a good job? Is it getting better?

SAMENOW: The answer I think has to be it depends. In the federal system there still are opportunities for offenders to help themselves. In other words to change their opportunities in the federal prisons with resources getting evermore scarce particularly in the states. For some of the prisons really are simply adult warehouses so I donít think things are too good there. In terms of working with juvenile offenders, yes, I think there are still very much alive and well the idea and the practice of trying to help juvenile offenders change and become responsible.

ATHENS: I think the system could use a lot, you know, more improvement. They make a lot of simple, crude distinctions between for example a first offender, non-first offender, which really just means the first time theyíve been caught. The rap sheet doesnít measure the amount of criminality of the person; it just measures the efficiency of the criminal justice system in catching up with the person. And so I think that we need to have much more in-depth studies of these people. So we know where they are on the violence ladder. And then we can make the proper decision whether to give them rehabilitation, selective rehabilitation, or whether we need selective incapacitation in their case. And even in the case of selective incapacitation which weíve using over the last ten years we still now face the crisis what do we do when these hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. You canít keep íem in there forever.

SAMENOW: Really the scope of the task for many offenders is larger than rehabilitating them. Rehabilitate means to restore to an earlier constructive state or condition but we have to go beyond that. And America must not give up its quest to try to help some of these people change--a habilitative program to help individuals change the way they think.

WATTENBERG: Okay, and on that note, thank you, Lonnie Athens.

ATHENS: Delighted to be here.

WATTENBERG: Thank you, Stanton Samenow and most of all thank you for watching Think Tank. Please be in touch with us via email. Itís what helps make our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036. Or e-mail us at thinktank@pbs.org.

To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS on line at www.pbs.org, and please, let us know where you watch Think Tank.

Funding for this program is provided by:

At Pfizer weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have twelve thousand scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer. Life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

This is PBS.

Back to top

Think Tank is made possible by generous support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Dodge Jones Foundation, and Pfizer, Inc.

©Copyright Think Tank. All rights reserved.
BJW, Inc.  New River Media 

Web development by Bean Creative.