Chapter 1: What Causes Crime?
Chapter 1 Preface
Though crimes occur everywhere, high rates of crime—along with joblessness, illegitimacy, and poverty—are concentrated in inner cities. Social scientists therefore look for the causes of crime in the correlations between these social factors.
Like many liberals, Samuel L. Myers, the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota, maintains that economic factors (such as joblessness and poverty) are the root causes of crime. He argues that the decline of industry in cities and the resultant loss of stable, wellpaying jobs, particularly for black men, “contribute to blocked opportunities, creating incentives to illegal activity.” He maintains that the majority of innercity youth can earn more money from illegal activities such as drug dealing than from the few legitimate minimum-wage jobs available. Because a lack of economic opportunities leads to crime and, ultimately, imprisonment for so many blacks, Myers continues, the number of “marriageable” black men in inner cities is at a critically low level, contributing to the illegitimacy and destabilized families that conservatives say are the causes of crime.
Like most conservatives, however, David Rubenstein, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, rejects the argument that economic factors cause crime. “It is hard to see crimes such as rape, drug use and most homicides and assaults as substitutes for...
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Polls show that Americans regard crime as the number one social problem facing the nation. We fear being a victim of violent crime, or having our property violated, far more than we fear being unemployed or suffering a loss of income. Crime far outstrips inflation, the deficit, or any other economic problem. Yet until recently, the economics profession had little to say about the root causes of criminal activity. Economists could do little more than tally the figures. We know, for example, that there were about 34 million criminal acts committed in the United States in 1992—about 94,000 crimes daily. This is a Justice Department estimate. We don’t know the exact number, because many, if not most, crimes are not reported.
We do know, however, that the national crime rate—crimes per capita—has tripled over the past 30 years. And at least 71 percent of all violent crimes (rape, robbery, assault, personal theft) involve some kind of economic loss. The direct costs in one sample year, 1992—in cash, cars, and personal property—came to about $18 billion. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Crime victims suffer trauma, depression, and fear that inevitably affect their ability to work and help others. These problems can last a lifetime. The total costs to crime victims can, therefore, easily reach $250 billion to $500 billion each year.
Then there are the public costs. State and local governments spend about $80 billion per year on...
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Economic Factors Cause Crime
Even though the crime rate in the United States has been declining, people’s fear of crime keeps increasing.
Rising Fear of Crime
In part, this is due to profit-hungry news media sensationalizing violent crimes in a lurid race for ratings, and to fleabag politicians who run against “soft-on-crime liberals” in a squalid race for votes.
Still, fear of crime does have a basis in fact even if the crime rate is not rising. This is because violence is no longer confined to “rough” neighborhoods, but now can strike anyone, anywhere.
If people weren’t plagued by other very real fears and worries over their jobs and families, they’d be able to view the crime problem more calmly and reasonably. But with all these other problems to deal with, who needs to worry that the teenager asking for spare change might one day pull a gun and demand money?
As bad as the gun-wielding muggers are, however, they are not the ones responsible for the working person’s financial insecurity and all the daily complications and stress that result from not having enough money.
It is the worker’s employer and elected representatives who could do something about that. But if they are unwilling to give a pay raise or to enact a national health-care plan—or are prohibited from doing so by the competitive demands of the profit system—they will certainly like to see someone else take the blame for the harm their...
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In the current debate over what to do about crime in America, national political leaders focus on the “grand” crime issues—capital punishment, gun control, the length of prison sentences, and the number of police on the streets. But on the local level, the terms of debate are much different. There, the issues may seem relatively trivial: panhandling, lying down in public spaces, public drinking and drug use, prostitution, unsolicited window washing, public urination and defecation, loitering, and graffiti. Yet the skirmishes being fought over these issues in areas such as Boston’s Dorchester, San Francisco’s Tenderloin area, Milwaukee’s Near West Side, Seattle’s Wallingford area, and New York City’s Columbia Heights may well determine whether or not these areas continue to decay.
The Homeless and the Crime Problem
What is going on? Why do local debates appear to center on problems so different from those focused upon in current national crime legislation? Isn’t “serious” crime the real problem? Is it true, as Helen Hershkoff of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues, that: “In an effort to deal with the enormous increase in poverty and homelessness in cities across the country during the past decade, numerous municipalities are enforcing, with renewed vigor, long-dormant ordinances prohibiting the destitute from asking members of the public for money”?
Are we resurrecting Victorian ideas of the...
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Genetic Factors May Cause Criminal Behavior
In the movie The Bad Seed, a mother reluctantly comes to realize that her angelic-looking little girl is a cold-blooded killer. That was fiction, of course— a story that built on the notion that someone could be “born bad”—and was overly simplistic as an explanation of evil. But new research is suggesting that that notion might be closer to truth than previously believed.
Scientists have begun to ask whether there is something biologically “wrong,” or different, about people who become violent criminals. And they are disclosing intriguing answers. Moreover, they say, criminal behavior can be spotted at a very early age—even as young as 6 years old, the age of the girl in the movie.
Traditional Theories: Society Causes Crime
Theories about the causes of violent crime go all over the intellectual map, drawing from sociology, psychology, philosophy and religion. The question bedevils law enforcement workers, prison counselors, the criminal justice system and an increasingly frightened public. Is crime rooted in poverty, poor upbringing, exposure to “the underclass” or lack of exposure to moral teachings? Is evil, pure and simple, the “bad seed” come to life? And more disturbingly, is violence an innate drive, something held at bay by a fragile line separating most of us, perhaps only temporarily, from a violent few?
“It isn’t all that hard to understand why some people use violence,”...
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A Lack of Morals Causes Criminal Behavior
Since 1960, per capita crime rates have more than tripled, while violent crime rates have nearly quintupled. By any measure, we live in a nation much less safe than that in which our parents grew up.
Liberal and Conservative Explanations of Crime
This simply cries out for an explanation. What in our modern society could possibly account for the sudden and explosive growth in force, fraud, and coercion?
Liberals typically posit socio-economic factors, such as poverty. Yet how can we attribute the rising tide of violence to rising poverty, when the periods of fastest crime growth have been during times of rapidly rising American wealth?
This popular “explanation” also fails on comparative grounds. Why is the richest nation on earth experiencing increases in predatory behavior that vastly exceed crime rates in much poorer nations? Why now, at a time of relative abundance and wealth, instead of during impoverished times past—say, during our Great Depression? And why after decades of dumping trillions of dollars into programs to eradicate privation, hunger, illiteracy, insecurity, disease, homelessness—the alleged “root causes” of crime?
Liberal explanations for crime that blame psychological or biological factors also fall flat. Why, for example, would there have been an abrupt leap in mental illness or genetic defects starting in 1962, when crime rates began to take off?
However, I must...
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A Lack of Religion Does Not Cause Crime
Charles W. Colson, the convicted Watergate felon, went on after prison to found a volunteer program for reforming prisoners [Prison Fellowship]. As part of that program, he advocated the broader use of religious values to help break “America’s seemingly indomitable cycle of crime.”
Religion and Crime
In a talk before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Colson chided the media for giving “short shrift” to religious values, “including the acknowledgment of the relevance of morality in society.”
But how relevant is religion to morality? Does religion make a person more ethical? Can a strong dose of religion really reduce crime?
Surprisingly, recent research suggests that a religious person is more likely to commit a crime than a non-religious person. One can even argue that the more religious the society, the more likely it is to have high crime rates.
What’s more, studies indicate that a believer in a religion is less likely to do a good deed than is a non-believer. Religion alone, many researchers agree, does not determine personal moral behavior.
Renowned sociologist Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition and You Know What They Say . . . The Truth About Popular Beliefs, has taken on the myths surrounding altruism and empathy in his recent book, The Brighter Side of Human Nature. With this book he continues his reasoned refutation of...
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