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Criminal Intent

The presidential candidates need to stop ignoring America's crime problem--and start considering innovative solutions.

Here's a funny thing about this presidential campaign season: Two crime dramas--"The Wire" and "Law & Order"--have gotten more attention than actual crime. Twenty years ago, with the crack epidemic peaking, George Bush rode to victory using Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis. Now, with the violent crime rate one-third lower, Republicans no longer try to paint Democrats as soft on crime, and Democrats no longer feel the need to prove themselves tough on the issue. Campus shootings in Virginia and Illinois have barely registered politically, and President Bush's evisceration of aid to local cops has received little attention on the campaign trail. Even Rudy Giuliani, who made his name fighting murder and mayhem in New York, included nothing on crime among his major campaign planks.

Although the end of law-and-order demagoguery is welcome, America still has a crime problem--or, rather, two crime problems. On one hand, the crime drop of the 1990s has ended, without delivering real relief to many communities. For example, while murder is down dramatically in New York and Chicago, homicide rates in Baltimore and Detroit are about the same as in 1995--and 25 percent higher than New York’s rate at its 1990 peak. In many inner cities, violence and the fear of violence remain central facts of life that drive away jobs, small businesses, and successful families. Overall, the country’s homicide rate is still three times higher than England’s or Australia’s, and twice that of Canada. According to the University of Chicago’s Jens Ludwig, crime costs the United States on the order of $2 trillion a year.

At the same time, America’s incarceration rate--the highest on earth--continues to balloon. According to a recent report from the Pew Center on the States, one in 100 U.S. adults is now behind bars, the largest percentage in our history. The racial imbalance is even more disturbing: One in 106 white men is in prison, compared to one in 15 African-American men. Overall, our incarceration rate is four times higher than it was in 1980, and more than five times that of England or Canada.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (for whom my wife works) have talked a little about reducing penal excesses, like the five-year minimum sentence for selling five grams of crack cocaine. But it is hard to imagine many politicians taking a serious run at sentencing reforms without reassuring the public they will keep crime down. And achieving those two goals together can seem impossible. Conservative scholars like James Q. Wilson have long drawn a straight line from more prisons to fewer crimes. When Pew announced its findings last month, former judge Paul Cassell, a Bush appointee, told The New York Times that the study overlooked the "very tangible benefits [of incarceration]: lower crime rates." And that link seems intuitive to most voters.

But the story is more complicated. For one thing, America’s incarceration rate has climbed steadily over the last 30 years--when crime was rising, when crime was falling, and now, when crime is staying about the same. This suggests that incarceration can only get us so far in fighting crime--especially when we have already locked up so many people. And then there is striking local evidence that cutting crime and cutting imprisonment can actually go together. That, at least, is the strong suggestion from the city that has pulled off America’s most surprising and most successful crime-fighting effort in decades: New York. And the Big Apple’s lessons could be exported nationwide--if only a national politician would pay attention.


On the surface, recent crime statistics from New York State don’t make a lot of sense. As the Vera Institute’s Michael Jacobson notes, while violent crime increased by one percent elsewhere over the last seven years, in New York it fell by 20 percent. But, while the rest of the country increased its prison population by 12 percent over the same time period, New York cut its total number of inmates by 14 percent. Shouldn’t fewer people behind bars mean more criminals out on the streets?

The mystery centers on New York City, which for 15 years has led the nation in crime cutting. Experts have long looked to economic and demographic factors to explain crime rates, but, as Berkeley professor Franklin Zimring points out in The Great American Crime Decline, those factors don’t really distinguish New York. What appears to make the difference, he argues, are more cops doing a better job. In the 1990s, New York’s police department grew twice as fast as those of other big cities. New York now boasts nearly twice as many cops per person as Los Angeles or Houston. And researchers like Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame) have found strong correlations between increased policing and reduced crime.

But volume can’t be the whole story. Washington, D.C., which has the country’s seventh-highest murder rate, has about 50 percent more police per person than New York. In addition to putting more cops on the street, New York has also deployed them with particular sophistication. In the 1990s, under Police Commissioner William Bratton, the city began holding precinct commanders accountable not just for the usual “output” measures--like response times to 911 calls--but also for better outcomes in terms of lower crime. There is academic disagreement about the impact of the city’s “quality of life” policing against low-level offenders, like the famous squeegee men. But the city has clearly gotten results by acting aggressively against more serious offenses that engender further crimes, like gun trafficking by street gangs. And, in a successful innovation of recent years, the NYPD has flooded the highest-crime neighborhoods with new beat cops.

UCLA’s Mark Kleiman tells a plausible story about why New York’s approach would make such a difference. When police forces have scarce resources and employ the usual tactics, they respond erratically but harshly, reacting when they can and arresting in sweeps. In theory, the harshness of the punishments should still deter crime--five years for five grams isn’t worth it. But the young adults who commit most crimes overrate their own skills at escaping punishment and underestimate the grimness of life behind bars. (Economists call the first phenomenon the Lake Wobegon effect; the second, hyperbolic discounting.) By contrast, when police target certain places or certain crimes, they can raise the risk of getting caught enough that perpetrators lose their usual feelings of invincibility. In other words, the credible threat of arrest, clearly communicated, makes arrests less necessary.

Evidence from elsewhere suggests that deterrent signals from the police become even more powerful when backed by moral voices from the community. In an approach pioneered by John Jay College’s David Kennedy, law enforcement forms alliances with neighborhood leaders, clergy members, and social-service providers. In troubled areas, the partners sit down face-to-face with gang members and drug dealers to send a clear message: If you stop offending, you will be welcomed by your neighbors and will get the help you need. If you continue breaking the law, you will be punished. Sometimes the police even share investigative files with offenders, showing they already have enough evidence to arrest but have chosen not to do so. The goal is not to build cases, but to restore order, as well as trust between the police and community members. One study found that when Chicago law enforcement implemented this approach in several high-crime neighborhoods between 2002 and 2004, homicide in those areas dropped by 37 percent--far more than in neighborhoods that didn’t see the same approach. And High Point, a city in central North Carolina that adopted the same tactics in 2004, was recently recognized by Harvard’s Kennedy School for successfully shutting down its drug markets while reducing arrests.


Emphasizing the certainty of sanction, rather than its harshness, will please neither those obsessed with punishing wrongdoing nor those who would explain it away. But it is a practical approach the federal government should support. For example, rather than cutting aid to local law enforcement as President Bush has done, the next president should revive Bill Clinton’s program of funding the deployment of new police officers. Ludwig and Yale’s John Donohue found that the initiative saved $4 for every $1 spent. Other targeted funding could help high-crime cities like Baltimore and Detroit implement the collaborations between law enforcement and community members that have worked so well in Chicago and elsewhere.

The challenge, however, is getting crime back on the national agenda. With a terrible war and a troubled economy, that is no easy task. Still, it is well worth trying: A 10 percent reduction in homicide rates, just a quarter of the 1990s drop, would save 1,700 lives--nearly twice the number of American military deaths in Iraq last year. Lowering the crime rate would also open political space to tackle sentencing reform. And a dual drop in violence and incarceration would be a boon to the country’s poorest communities. With “The Wire” over and “Law & Order” long past its heyday, maybe it’s time to give true crime a closer look.

Robert Gordon is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.