Volume 2, Issue 1, June 1999

ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
© 1999, The Western Criminology Review. All Rights Reserved.

Reflections on Crime and Criminology at the Millenium*

Elliott Currie


Citation: Currie, Elliott. 1999. "Reflections on Crime and Criminology at the Millenium." Western Criminology Review 2(1). [Online]. http://www.westerncriminology.org/documents/WCR/v02n1/currie/currie.html

Keywords: criminology, criminal justice, social change, public policy, crime trends, social problems, incapacitation and crime 

Reflections on Crime and Criminology at the Millenium*

A funny thing kept happening every time I sat down to put this talk together. I kept finding that my thoughts were coming out a lot more negative than I expected; and I felt sort of guilty about that: I thought that, in the spirit of celebrating the millenium, I should be more upbeat.

After all, aren't things pretty good as we close out this century? The economy's booming, stock market's good, crime is down--right? But when I sat down to really think through how I felt about where we stand with respect to crime and the justice system today, the truth is that no matter how valiantly I tried, I just didn't feel all that upbeat. So I decided to stop fighting it and share with you some of the reasons why.

The truth is that I find myself very troubled about the state of crime and justice in America. And I'm troubled both as a citizen and as a criminologist. As a citizen, I'm troubled by the drift of our crime policy and by the shoulder-shrugging inattention to the massive injustices we have tolerated, or precipitated, in the name of fighting crime. As a criminologist--as a professional--I'm troubled by the drift of our public discourse about these issues--a discourse that seems to me to be increasingly removed from most of what you and I in this room actually know about crime.

And I'm also convinced that we are making mistakes today in our approach to crime and punishment that will probably come back to haunt us in the future. I say "probably," because nobody, in this peculiar and volatile age, should profess to be able to predict what's going to happen next week, much less a few years down the road. But what I'm sure of is that we're doing our best to mess things up, big time. We might, for reasons I'll get into, be able to escape some of the consequences of that. But then again, we might not.

Those mistakes are masked by the recent declines in serious crime in the United States. And let me be clear about this--I think that for the most part those declines are real ones. We know that there are places like New York and Philadelphia where they've fudged some of the statistics, but the overall decline is mainly genuine. And it matters, in the real world: it means that a lot of lives will be saved, and a lot of real-life tragedies will be avoided.

But there is a great danger of exaggerating our "successes" --and, above all, of misinterpreting them--of drawing the wrong lessons from them. And that's what I think I see happening today.


In the last few years we've seen the emergence of a new kind of triumphalism about crime, and the capacity of the criminal justice system to control it. You don't see this so much among criminologists, or among practitioners who actually work in the trenches of the justice system every day. But you see it, in spades, among pundits and politicians and in the media.

The new triumphalism about crime is connected to the broader triumphalism--even smugness--about the "American Model" generally. There is a sense that we've got it "fixed" here in the United States--that we possess the secret of how to organize your economy and society successfully, and that everyone else in the world ought to learn to do things the way we do. When it comes to the economy, our secret is usually said to be things like a "flexible" labor market, a minimal welfare state, a willingness to deregulate economic life whenever and wherever we can. In the triumphalist view about crime, the secret of our supposed success is variously said to be our "tough" policing strategies--"zero tolerance," "quality of life"--and/or that our enormous investment in incarceration is finally paying off in a big way. And as a result we are now sometimes compared favorably to other countries that, unlike us, still have crime. 

The lesson we're supposed to ingest from all of this "success" on the crime front is that it's ok now: after years and years of doing it wrong, we're finally doing it right. And the even deeper implication is that we've now proven that we can indeed control crime through the criminal justice system alone. The flip side of that being that we've also proven that you don't, after all, need to address such problems as poverty or social exclusion or other supposed "root causes" of violent crime. Mayor Giuliani has proven all those carping sociologists wrong. It may indeed have been true until recently that the criminal justice system wasn't doing much to reduce crime, but that's because we didn't let it. Now we've shaken off our self-imposed shackles, and it's "working."

As the former New York Police Commissioner, William Bratton, was quoted the other day in the New York Times, "we've learned we can manage our way out of the crime problem."

Now of course these aren't new ideas, in themselves; some people have been making similar arguments for decades. But what's new is that now a lot of people--outside this profession, at least--believe them. In fact some version of this view now dominates the official political discourse on crime in the United States. And this is a thoroughly bipartisan consensus. In the turmoil around the Clinton impeachment, when the Republicans and Democrats have been consistently polarized and at each others' throats, it may be easy to forget that when it comes to crime, the two parties have for the most part followed virtually identical policies, and produced virtually identical rhetoric, for years.

Virtually all candidates for major political office, whether Democrat or Republican, are pretty much the same things--enforcing the death penalty, tough sentencing, drug mandatories, denial of welfare benefits to minor drug offenders--and on and on.

There is no significant national-level political debate on the most critical issues of criminal justice policy today--the swelling of the correctional complex, the massive overrepresentation of black Americans in the justice system, the chronic revelations of terrible abuses in our prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities, the increasing resort to the death penalty in the face of the opposite trend in every other Western democracy, or the increasing use of the penal system as a substitute for more constructive approaches to the structural social ills of American society: and very little real debate about these things at the state level either. The one partial exception to this is gun control, where there is a good deal of interesting and long overdue stirring. But aside from that, these are not issues that exactly convulse the Congress or state legislatures--or the White House--these days.

And again I find this absence of debate enormously troubling, on several levels at once. As a social scientist, I have to say I'm appalled, frankly, by the intellectual shallowness and shoddiness of many of the arguments that underlie the triumphalist consensus; as a citizen of what I'd like to think of as a democratic nation, I'm chilled by its values, or lack thereof; as a member of the community--and a parent--I'm frightened by the heedlessness it displays about the future.

Put simply, I think we're in a lot worse shape than the new triumphalism is willing to recognize. And we will not get much better until and unless we reject that triumphalism and, finally, get to work to deal with the deeper ills that our present situation both reflects and exacerbates. The good news is that we could do that. We're at a point in our history when we actually have the wherewithal--both the knowledge and the material resources--to launch an honest and effective attack on the violent crime that still shames us, in a way that's both enduring and humane. And we have the knowledge and the resources to shape our justice systems into institutions that we could--of all things--be proud of, rather than the globally recognized scandal that they are today.

But make no mistake--we'll never get there if we keep trying to fool ourselves that we're there already.

So I want to touch on three things today: first, I want to talk about where I think we really stand with respect to serious violent crime in the United States as we close this century; second, to talk about what we really know about why things have recently improved to the extent that they have; and third, to say just a little about what all of that tells us about what we need to do now if we want both a safer society and a more humane--and more honorable--justice system.


Let me start with a couple of thoughts on our current situation. I wish I could believe the hype about our crime rates, which are now universally described as "plummeting" or "plunging" (there's something interestingly Freudian about that sort of language, which somebody ought to explore, or delve into...). But while there is an important reality beneath the hype, it's hype nonetheless, and it obscures some very important home truths.

Home Truth Number One is that despite the declines in violent crime since the early nineties, we remain a far more violent place than the rest of the advanced industrial world. That particular home truth gets obscured for a variety of reasons; partly because in our public discourse about social problems we very rarely look anywhere else in the world for a basic reality check on our own condition (that's especially rare in the mass media); and partly because of some rather misleading empirical claims that have been made about the level of crime in other industrial societies.

There are now people who will tell you in all seriousness that crime is worse in Switzerland than in the United States. (Anybody who believes that hasn't been there; well, they may have been to Geneva, or they may have been to New Orleans, but they surely haven't been to both). Even when it comes to property crime and less serious violence, there's a lot to be skeptical about in some of this research. But when it comes to really serious violence--homicide, gun assaults, forcible rape, armed robbery--nobody who's serious denies that we still stand out, that we are in fact an anomaly--an outlier--among the advanced industrial countries.

And that reality forces us to put the recent declines in violence in the United States in proper perspective. It doesn't make us any less glad that those declines have happened, but it does serve as a check against going overboard in interpreting them. A few years ago our homicide death rate among young men aged 15-24 was 36 per 100,000. By 1996 it had dropped to about 30 per 100,000. With any luck, it's probably more like 25 now. That's good. It means that a lot of young men are alive who would be dead at the earlier rate. But it's still higher than it was in 1987. And more importantly, it's still out of the ballpark by comparison with every other industrial democracy.

A drop from 36 to 25 per 100,000 would mean that the relative risk of homicide death for our young men versus those in England has fallen from 33 to 1 to only... 23 to 1. In 1996, 5,665 young American men aged 15-24 died of homicide. If the United States had had the English youth homicide death rate there would have been roughly 210 of them. And over 5,400 young men--disproportionately young men of color--would be alive today. A little black girl aged 1-4 in the United States, at last count, was seven times as likely to die by homicide as a teenaged to young adult male in England. There is a limit to how much we can celebrate these realities.

Home Truth Number Two is that even measured against our own norms the recent declines are not exactly what they are sometimes described as being. In the media discussion of the recent trends, you often see them presented as if they represented a sudden fall from a plateau--which appears quite spectacular, and also rather mysterious--when the reality is that they mainly represent a falling-off from an extraordinary peak, which is both less wonderful and less mysterious.

Seen this way, what's very clear is that we had an epidemic of serious violence which started in the late 1980s and peaked in the early 1990s; we're at the tail end of that now, which is a lot better than being in the middle of it, but which also puts us back at close to the very high endemic levels of violence we've been suffering for thirty-odd years.

The age-adjusted homicide death rate was just fractionally lower in 1997 than it was in 1985, despite the redoubling of the prison population during that time, and almost exactly the same as it was in 1969, despite the enormous increases in the prison population--and despite the very significant medical improvements in our ability to keep people from dying if they are badly hurt in an assault.

Home Truth Number Three is more subtle, and explaining it can get a little more technical. It's that in a very real sense we have hidden our crime problem, not beaten it. The fact that we don't pay much attention to this basic reality is due both to the nature of the public response to crime and, also, to some of the conventions of measurement in criminology. Since the public is most interested in getting criminals off the street and safely away from view, the public discourse about crime rarely counts the people behind bars as part of our crime problem. Instead they are usually counted as part of the solution, if they are counted at all. But as a result, the issue of what it means for our assessment of ourselves as a society--as a civilization--that we have such a big proportion of our population behind bars, rarely comes up.

But there is also a more complicated empirical and conceptual peculiarity in the way we measure crime that tends to obscure the extent of the problem--and to exaggerate our success against it.

This is a tricky issue, and I find myself struggling frequently over how best to express it. It's the kind of thing, I find, that you either get or you don't; people who do get it, get it right away and think it's obvious, while those who don't get it, never get it. But the basic issue is simple. When we try to assess the severity of our crime problem, we usually fail to include that part of the problem that's represented by the people currently behind bars. We do this so naturally that it's completely unreflective, but on reflection this is actually very odd.

One of the most distinctive things about the United States with respect to crime and punishment, after all, is that we not only have an unusually high level of serious violent crime--but we maintain that high level of violent crime despite the fact that we also boast the highest level of incarceration of any country in the world but one (and when it comes to ordinary street crimes, we probably even beat Russia).

Now our common sense, I think, would tell us that this means that our real crime problem is even worse than our measured crime "rate" itself would indicate. Because that measured rate leaves out all of the "criminality" that's represented by those masses of people behind bars. I'm not talking here about the crimes they actually commit while behind bars--though that's of course very important itself in understanding our real crime rate; for example, most of us would shudder to think what would happen to our official rate of rape if we counted what goes on in jails and prisons.

But the more important conceptual problem is that we measure our crime rate without factoring in the reality that we've simply shifted some of the total "pool" of criminals in our society from one place to another. We haven't stopped producing them. We've just moved them. Put in a shorthand way, the problem is that we traditionally measure the "crime rate" rather than what we might call the "criminality rate." What we call the "crime rate" measures the activity of criminals still on the street: and of course, that kind of measure is useful in many ways. But as an measure of the overall criminality problem--as an indicator of the tendency of our society to produce criminals--it's obviously defective.

It's like measuring the extent of some physical illness in our society while systematically excluding from the count all those people who are so sick we've had to put them in the hospital. Nobody would do that, in the field of public health. We do it all the time in the field of criminology.

This point is often lost in that triumphalist consensus I've been talking about. I was struck by this not too long ago when I heard some remarks by an official in the Clinton administration, who was waxing enthusistic about the great state of the country around the time the President was running for his second term. He was ticking off all the good social indicators that showed how successful his adminstration had been and, presumably, why we should vote for them again. So he very triumphantly declared that "more people are at work, more people are off the welfare rolls, and more people are in prison."

So on one level there is a sort of philosophical "disconnect" here. You'll recall how people used this term "disconnect" as a noun when talking about the gap between the House Republicans and a lot of other people on the issue of Bill Clinton's impeachment. Well, I have to say there is a "disconnect" between me and those who think that having a lot of people in prison is a positive social indicator.

But this isn't just a philosophical issue, because it significantly affects how we think about the problem of crime in our society and how we assess the meaning of the recent trends. And it's an issue that can be framed in empirical terms and studied. You could come up a number of ways of actually measuring the "criminality rate" in quantitative terms, and in fact we have some bits and pieces of research that suggest how we might do that.

The basic strategy is pretty straightforward; we need a measure of the amount of criminality represented by the offenders currently on the street combined with the amount of criminality represented by offenders currently incarcerated. The key is to get a good estimate of the individual crime rates, what some criminologists call "lambda," of offenders behind bars and add to it the lambda of those on the outside. (There is in fact a recent attempt to calculate some similar figures, by Jose Canela-Cacho, Alfred Blumstein and Jacqueline Cohen, which you may have seen published in Criminology not long ago.)

I won't go into detail, but suppose, just for the sake of argument, that we assume that the average number of reported robberies committed by incarcerated robbers is, say, 5 a year. Well, there were about 135,000 inmates in state and federal prisons with robbery as their most serious charge in 1995. That means that other things being equal, those robbers, had they been on the street, would have been responsible for an additional 5 x 135,000, or 675,000, reported robberies--on top of the 580,000 we actually had in 1995. So factoring in the level of criminality in the incarcerated population to arrive at what we might call the "latent" robbery rate more than doubles the conventional rate.

And looking at crime this way obviously forces us to think differently about the trends in recent years. By my extremely rough calculation, our "criminality index" for reported robbery in 1995 was about 1,250,000--that's adding the 675 to the 580 thousand. Now let's go back to 1985, and do the same calculation. In that year imprisoned robbers accounted for an estimated 94,000 X 5 robberies, or 470,000, because there were fewer robbers in prison; add to that the 498,000 reported, and you get 968,000. So our index increased by 287,000, or about 30 percent, between 1985 and 1995. Measured the conventional way, the number of robberies increased too in those years, but by only 16 percent. So the rate of increase in the robbery problem, by this measure, was twice the conventionally reported one.

Now again there are lots of technical uncertainties to this kind of measurement; but I'll leave all that to people who are better at this sort of thing than I am. But I think the general point is beyond serious doubt. If we measure our crime problem by our tendency to produce criminality, then we may be in a real sense losing the "war" on crime even as we have successfully hidden some of the losses behind prison walls--and therefore appear superficially to be winning it.

That obviously gives us a very different sense of what's going on in our society. And again, I think looking at matters this way is only common sense. We feel that there's got to be something especially wrong here if we have both very high rates of violent crime and very high incarceration rates, at the same time--something that isn't captured in the conventional crime rate alone. Suppose two countries have the same official rate of violent crimes, but one country has, proportionally, four times as many violent offenders behind bars. Do they really have the same violent crime problem? I don't think so.

"Well," some people might say, "this isn't fair. You're just manipulating the statistics to make things look bad." But--again--the reality is that this is the way we actually go about measuring most other social ills--with the exception of criminality. In a reasonable culture we would not say we had won the war against disease just because we've moved a lot of sick people from their homes to hospital wards. And in a reasonable culture we would not say we've won the war against crime just because we've moved a lot of criminals from the community into prison cells.

There is another way in which we have shoved the crime problem out of sight, rather than really improving it; one which I'll only touch on now, but which I think will become more and more difficult to ignore in the 21st century. There's a sense in which we've hidden some of the tendency of our current social order to produce crime by displacing some of the problem into other countries. As a result, it doesn't appear in our crime statistics, although it has a lot to do with us.

As everyone knows, we are no longer an isolated national economy--no longer a socio-economic system that's contained within our national borders (indeed we never were, but we are less and less so today). We're part of a global system that is tied together in increasingly fateful and intricate ways--as the recent near-meltdown of the global financial system reminded us. In fact, as many economists have pointed out, our current economic good fortune is partly dependent on the misfortune of other countries, especially in the developing world--because it means lower prices for the imports we buy from them, from oil to blue jeans to jumbo shrimp.

But those low prices reflect the near-collapse of the standard of living in some other countries, especially for low-income people. That in turn aggravates a variety of social processes that tend to boost their rate of crime. It creates a lot of family poverty and family disruption, massive joblessness, resulting migration, and the growth of illicit occupations, especially the drug trade. And those social processes have sent violent crime through the roof in a number of countries whose economies are intimately connected to ours, notably Mexico.

We don't count any of this when we think about our crime rate, of course, until some of it comes back across our borders--which it invariably does, in a variety of ways. But surely it's time to start acknowledging these connections, if we want to understand the real impact of our present social and economic model on crime, much less to grapple with it.

So one problem I have with the new "triumphalism" about crime is that I think that to some extent it represents a state of denial--in which we exaggerate our recent successes against serious crime and strategically ignore the implications of our comparative standing vis-a-vis other countries. But there's also what may be an even more crucial problem. Granting that there have been significant reductions in violence, the new triumphalism puts a highly misleading "spin" on the why of those declines--a spin which is not only misleading but dangerous, because it could lead us to adopt (or to continue) all the wrong anticrime policies while ignoring the things we really ought to be doing.


There are two facets of that misleading "spin": first, it exaggerates the role of some kinds of criminal justice strategies in accounting for the declines; second, it underestimates the role of other, social factors which are probably more important. Put those together, and you have the core of a new ideology about crime control that could lead us to policy mistakes that, once made, are very difficult to correct.

Let's take the exaggeration of the criminal justice effects first. As everyone here knows, two things in particular, in some combination, have often been given the bulk of the credit for our recent declines in violent crime. One is tough sentencing laws which have dramatically boosted incarceration rates; the other is tough policing, especially the so-called "zero tolerance" approach most famously, or notoriously, adopted in New York City. You can read about the supposed great effects of both of these in the media practically any day of the week, and not only in the United States, but all over the world.

But the reality, of course, is that ascribing too much effect to either our booming incarceration rates or our famous zero tolerance policing flies in the face of the evidence--or maybe more precisely, flies in the face of the lack of evidence.

Take the impact of incarceration first. I'm sure I don't have to spend too much time talking about the limits of incarceration to this audience. But let me just make a few points. I'm not suggesting that there have been no effects of our mushrooming prison population on rates of violence. I think there are effects, and I've gone on record as saying so. I don't think you can lock up everybody and their brother--and increasingly their sister--and not have some impact on rates of violent crime. Indeed that's what the serious research on incapacitation effects has told us for many years, and I have no real quarrel with that research. (In fact what I just said about the "latent" crime rate or "criminality" rate implies that there's such a thing as incapacitation). But that's very different from believing that mass incarceration is the major reason for the declines in serious violence in America; or that we could drive our rates of violence even lower if we just did more of the same.

The idea that booming prison populations are the key reason for the declines in serious criminal violence runs up against a number of stubborn realities. One is that the magnitude of the declines varies enormously across different states--and doesn't vary in any consistent fashion with those states' use of incarceration relative to their crime rates. Some of the slowest declines in violence (and in index crime generally) have been in Southern states with very high and very rapidly rising incarceration rates; some of the fastest declines have been in the Northeast, which traditionally incarcerates relatively sparingly. Some of the most spectacular successes against youth violence have taken place in Boston, in a state with a traditionally low incarceration rate relative to its crime rate.

And the more complicated research we have so far backs up that common-sense "eyeball' observation. If you boost your state prison population a lot, you will probably get moderate effects on some "high rate" crimes, notably burglary and perhaps one violent crime, robbery--but astonishingly small effects on most other serious crimes of violence, including homicide, serious assault and forcible rape. Yet it's homicide that has fallen the fastest among violent offenses in the last few years. Can our sixfold increase in the prison population explain some of the decline in homicide? Probably. Can it explain most of it? No.

There are similar problems, only worse, with the assertion that it's aggressive "zero tolerance" policing that's responsible for the declines in serious violence. I find myself gritting my teeth about this one several times a week. There are plenty of legitimate controversies about the effects of police on violent crime. But this is different. This, to my mind, is one of the most egregious examples I know of the triumph of public relations hype over evidence.

And in this case it has a lot of nasty consequences--including the justification of police behavior that nobody should be justifying. I've just read, for example, an opinion column saying that, sure, it's too bad that a young African immigrant was shot nineteen times by the NYPD's street crimes unit even though he didn't do anything wrong--but we've got to accept that kind of thing occasionally if we want to have the declines in crime that the NYPD has achieved. After all, if the police take a less aggressive role, then crime will go back up--and when it does, the worst victims will be other black people!

To put it in the most technical methodological language I can, I'd say this argument is B.S. It's B.S. because nobody has in fact ever shown that nasty policing is responsible for declining rates of violent crime in our cities--even less, that you have to have nasty police to have declines in crime. We know that many cities have seen sharp drops in violence without resorting to the heavy-handed and heedless methods that all too many people today are too quick to credit. That includes a number of cities here in California--some of which have indeed done innovative things with their police, but in very different, more positive and community-oriented ways; I recently spent about a week hanging around with a San Diego cop whose opinion of the New York version of "zero tolerance" policing is even lower than mine, and expressed much less politely. There are also cities in which the police have done practically nothing that's new, and still the levels of violent crime have dropped strikingly.

This isn't to say that nothing the NYPD does is relevant to their crime declines; I'm pretty convinced that some things they do, notably the strong emphasis on crime analysis and targeting resources on hot spots, have been part of the story, and those things make a great deal of sense. But what is too often forgotten, especially in the media's treatment of these issues, is that we utterly lack evidence that rousting squeegee men or harassing homeless people--or emptying your weapons into innocent young immigrants--has anything whatever to do with reducing serious violent crime. I've asked for such evidence over and over again, and so far I've come away empty-handed. Can the police help to prevent crime? Yes, and probably more than we once thought. Is zero tolerance policing mainly responsible for the drop in the national homicide rate since 1992? No.

The flip side of the exaggeration of the effect of tough sentencing and macho policing is the underestimation of the impact of deeper social forces in producing the recent declines in violence. And again, there's an ideological purpose being served by this underestimation. It helps to bolster the claim that "root causes" don't matter and that those of us who believe that we'd have less violence if we began treating people better, rather than just treating them rougher, are obsolete. Because the implications of these declines for social policy are very different if you believe, as I do, that the most important factor in producing them is probably the extraordinary economic boom we've enjoyed for the last seven years.

It's very important to bear in mind the magnitude of this burst of prosperity. As the New York Times put it in an editorial the other day, these are "astounding" economic times. This is by now more than seven years of sustained economic growth, which has produced unprecedented levels of employment--which of course have made us the wonder of most of the rest of the post-industrial world. It's true that the wonderfulness of our job picture relative to that of, say, Europe is routinely exaggerated, not least because we get to remove our nearly two million incarcerated people from our unemployment count. But the job gains since the late 1980s have been extraordinary.

And these economic gains have not been confined to the affluent. It's true that they've been concentrated among the rich. But they have also significantly changed the economic condition and the economic prospects--at least the short-term prospects--of low-income Americans, in many parts of the country. Unemployment rates have fallen sharply, even among people who have traditionally had the worst employment problems: the unemployment rate among black teenagers has fallen by close to twenty per cent since 1992, for example--rather nicely paralleling the drops in reported robbery and homicide.

Beyond that, the boom has begun to pull people into the labor force who until recently were too far out of it to even be counted as unemployed. It has also begun, more recently, to push up wages and hence family incomes for people underemployed in low-wage jobs, and, among blacks, to shift some people out of contingent work into more or less steady jobs. All of this has begun to make at least a noticeable dent in our rates of family poverty.

And from a variety of criminological perspectives, we know that this matters. It matters because it gives people, especially young people on the edges of the economy, a better stake in legitimate occupations as opposed to illegitimate ones. If you're a smart kid who now has a realistic opportunity to go to work at Banana Republic where before your only economic opportunity was on the corner with a beeper, pretty soon Banana Republic can start to look pretty good by comparison, given the dangers and uncertainties--and moral quandaries--of the street life. It matters also because it pulls many people--especially young men--out of settings that have a high risk for them to become either offenders or victims of violence, like bars and street corners, and into the workplace. It matters because it diminishes the risks of intimate violence behind closed doors.

And as a result it provides a much better explanation for the pattern of our recent crime declines. Again, I'm not suggesting it explains all of them, or that criminal justice strategies are unimportant. But the economic boom as explanation has the supreme virtue of actually fitting the reality. It fits, for example, with the otherwise perplexing fact that homicide has fallen faster than some property crimes. If putting lots of people in prison were the main explanation, then we'd expect big drops in property crimes and small ones in homicide, since, again, that's what all of our incapacitation research would predict. Instead the biggest drops are in homicide, a crime notoriously resistant to incapacitation effects. On the other hand, in a booming economy with rising employment, we could predict contradictory effects on some property crime--because there's more to steal--but falling homicide rates, for all of the reasons I just mentioned.

Another crucial part of the explanation for the recent declines in violence is related to the economic boom--it's the waning of the crack epidemic. I think the research--by Al Blumstein, Richard Rosenfeld, Janet Lauritsen, and others--is pretty clear on this. It makes sense that as the crack epidemic swamped the cities, especially the big ones, after the mid 1980s, and brought the huge escalation in the gun trade with it, violence would go through the roof--and it did. It's in the cities where the crack epidemic started later that rates of serious violence have proven most stubborn. The waning of the crack epidemic, of course, is itself a very complicated phenomenon: it's certainly not unrelated to criminal justice tactics, but it's also related to the growth of realistic opportunities for legitimate work for people ready to abandon the crack trade.

Now, both of those factors--the booming economy and the waning of the crack epidemic--are very positive developments, and very welcome. But virtually by definition they also contain a warning. And the warning is pretty obvious: if indeed we have been rescued from our recent crime epidemic mainly by two basically fortuitous trends--then, by the same token, that means that we're in trouble if those beneficent trends should change.


It's true that this current economic boom is unusual and has lasted a long time, and there are people who say that the whole traditional business cycle may have become a thing of the past. Well, maybe. But don't bet the farm on it. And if, as most of us expect, the inevitable downturn comes--whether it's triggered in Sao Paulo or Jakarta or Guadalajara or wherever around the increasingly volatile globe--does anyone here really doubt that violent crime will get worse--probably sooner rather than later? I suspect that if and when that happens, we will relearn rather quickly that root causes do indeed matter. What exactly would we expect if we throw all those young men back on the street, out of their new-found legitimate jobs, and keep them there for a long time--especially since we have simultaneously steadily chipped away at what remains of our social safety net?

I was in Brazil recently, and I spent some time in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. It was among the most sobering experiences of my life. Not just because of the extraordinary level of deprivation there and the almost total absence of a public commitment to even the most minimal social protection for the poor. Not just because of the terribly glaring gap between large numbers of affluent people and even larger numbers of desperately poor people. But also because I kept having this chilling sense of recognition. Rio's problems, of poverty and violence and drugs, are extreme. But to an American, they are not, unfortunately, altogether unfamilar.

And I couldn't help but think that there's a very real sense in which that could be where we are going--or where we could go if indeed we suffer a major reversal of our recent economic fortunes. A society that tolerates vast inequalities, that enforces extreme social exclusion, that then uses its criminal justice system--notably an "unleashed" police--to keep the whole thing contained, and then justifies all of that in the name of some notion of economic necessity: well, that's Brazil all right; but to an uncomfortable degree, it's also us, and my fear is that it could be even more "us" in the future. Unless, of course, we take serious steps now to avoid it.

The good news is that we could do that, if we so choose. How? I've talked too long already, so I won't go into great detail--and in any case I've tried to do that elsewhere. But for now, let me just say that two big jobs seem to me to especially critical for us as criminologists in the coming century. The first is to push, and push relentlessly, to insure that this nation makes those preventive social investments that can reduce violent crime in enduring and humane ways, rather than simply suppressing it, hiding it, or denying it. The second--related, of course--is to push equally hard and equally relentlessly to end the systemic abuses in our institutions of criminal justice and, beyond that, to foster a new kind of revolution in those institutions--so that their job number one is understood to be the dedicated effort to rebuild the lives and enhance the productive capacities of the people who have to go through them.

Neither of these tasks is exactly a hot-button issue in most of the public arena today. And so in both of these tasks we have a very special, and indispensable, role. I'm increasingly afraid that if somebody doesn't push, and push very hard, then nobody's going to do these things--at least not to the extent that they need doing. And I think it may be us who've got to do the pushing.

For my money, within those general parameters there are some especially crucial things that need our most immediate and sustained attention. I want to see us invest seriously in family support programs of the kind that can prevent child abuse and neglect and thus stop a lot of our worst violent crime before it starts. I want to see serious investment in intensive work with kids already in trouble, along the lines of Multisystemic Therapy, and I want to see that kind of help available to the kids who need it in every community in the United States. I want to see a real commitment to helping those people we do put behind bars to become literate, skilled in some meaningful line of work, and with their substance abuse under control. (To make that possible, I want to see the people who don't belong in prison taken out, and those serving absurd sentences for minor crimes get shorter ones, if they get any sentence at all.) I want to see a fundamental legislative and judicial re-examination of three strikes and other mandatory sentencing schemes.

On the broader, societal level, what I most want to see is a serious and sustained challenge to our scandalous levels of child poverty, far the worst in the advanced industrial world--which I am thoroughly convinced are the soil out of which our appalling levels of violence grow. And I want to see a real, not rhetorical, commitment to a package of family-friendly social policies--including better child care, flexible and shorter work time, and living wages for honest work--so that we can (a) cut the roots of family violence and (b) help to insure that the next century's kids grow up with better support and better nurturance than a lot of them have in this century. (I've just read a study, by the way, that estimates that if women were paid the same as men doing comparable work in the paid labor force, the poverty rate among single mothers would be cut almost exactly in half.)

Most of these suggestions aren't new. Many people have made them before, including me (I note with interest that James Q. Wilson has recently been coming out in support of some early family intervention programs; if something is supported by me and James Q. Wilson, I think it's probably going to be supported by quite a lot of people). But what may be different about saying them now is that we really do have the resources to make them happen.

There was a time, not too long ago, when a lot of states could plead poverty in explaining why they didn't invest in preventive work with families and kids, for example. There were massive budget deficits, and so we "couldn't afford" it. You'd go to legislators, and they would shake their heads sadly and say, gee, we agree with you, it would be great if we could do these things, but our hands are tied. Come back when (or if) things get better. Well, it's hard to get off the hook that way in 1999. I've just read that the states now have a combined budget surplus of over $30 billlion, and that doesn't, I think, count the largesse they're going to get from from the recent tobacco settlements.

But my guess is that this situation is temporary, and that means we have a window of opportunity now to make some of those critical social investments we should have been making forty years ago. And we should use that opportunity very soon, because we could also lose it very soon. Right now, many states have so much money because of the economic boom that they literally don't know what to do with it. I think we should tell them.

We, criminologists, should tell them. Because the last point I want to emphasize is that I hope that in the next century criminologists will have a stronger, and louder, voice in shaping our social policy than they have usually had in this one. It's no secret that an awful lot of the crime policies that have been launched in our recent history have been almost diametrically opposed to what most of us think we know about crime. How exactly that happened is not so easy to answer. But what's crystal clear is that it shouldn't happen. If there's one task that we as professional criminologists should set for ourselves in the new millenium, it's to fight to insure that stupid and brutal policies that we know don't work are--at the very least--challenged at every turn and in every forum that's available to us.

I especially hope than in the next century we will take the lead in fighting to end the blatant abuses of human rights that scar our prisons, our juvenile facilities, our police departments. I know many of us individually have done a lot of that already. But I want to see us doing so not as scattered individuals, but as a unified profession. If we act together as a profession we can provide a kind of clout and credibility that the movement against those abuses badly needs. It's one thing if a handful of underfunded nonprofits take on some egregious violation of human rights in a state's prison system all by themselves (though more power to them). It's another if the entire Western Society of Criminology, or the entire American Society of Criminology, does--loudly and visibly. An abusive criminal justice system is the way a neglectful society keeps its casualties in line. We need to do our best to put a stop to that.

If we don't take on a more forceful role in advocating for intelligent and decent policy, then it's not only bad for the country: it's bad for us too. Because if we don't challenge the way things are now, we can get caught in the web of what I sometimes call the "criminology of the absurd." By that I mean that we're put into the hugely frustrating position of seeing, from our vantage point as professionals, the same depressing and tragic scene unfolding before us, year after year after year. We see the same kinds of people, coming from the same kinds of quite predictable environments, churning through our justice systems, and through the related agencies of control and emergency assistance, where they get very little serious help of the kind that could realistically change anything in their lives: and then we accordingly bemoan, over and over again, our inability to make much of a difference in this depressing pattern.

There comes a point when, as a practitioner or a scholar watching this process year in, year out, you can become deeply alienated, sometimes in ways that are very subtle but very profound. You can begin to feel like Sisyphus pushing that rock; or like one of what Lee Rainwater, following the sociologist Everett Hughes, famously called the "dirty workers" of society--the people charged with keeping the lid on--which is not something that most of us really want to do for the rest of our lives. So for our own mental health, as well as our integrity as a profession, we have to struggle against getting put in the position of simply being the containers, and/or the chroniclers, of massive and deepening social exclusion.

To some extent, this will mean redefining what the criminologist's job is. We will need, I think, to shift some emphasis away from the accumulation of research findings to better dissemination of what we already know, and to more skillful promotion of sensible policies based on that knowledge--policies both in and out of the criminal justice system, including policies to directly attack social exclusion and inequality. That doesn't mean, by the way, just increasing our "access" to elected officials; first and foremost, it means raising public awareness--enhancing the public's criminological IQ. We need to think through more intensive and creative ways of doing that, because the only way that we will get our political systems to move is if they are facing an already informed and mobilized public.

For too long, we've been accustomed to being in a one-down position, always lamenting the fact that politicians pay no attention to us and ignore what we know. I think that could change. But it will change only if, and when, we develop the organizational capacity to raise public consciousness on these issues to a level that neither politicians, nor anyone else, can ignore.



*Plenary remarks, annual meetings of the Western Society of Criminology, February, 1999.

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Elliott Currie

Elliott Currie is the author, most recently, of Crime and Punishment in America (Metropolitan Books, 1998), which was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. His earlier writings include Confronting Crime (1985) and Reckoning: Drugs, the Cities, and the American Future (1993). He currently teaches in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley.


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