Chapter 3: Can Stronger Criminal Justice Measures Prevent Crime?
Chapter 3 Preface
In October 1993, Polly Klaas, a twelve-year-old girl in Petaluma, California, was kidnapped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis, a man with a lengthy criminal record. Davis had been convicted and jailed three times for violent crimes before killing Klaas, and he had been released from prison only three months prior to the kidnapping. The case became the focal point for the campaign to adopt a “three strikes, you’re out” law in California, mandating a life sentence for a criminal convicted of three violent felonies. Californians hoped that this new law would prevent future crimes like the murder of Polly Klaas.
Many conservatives support strict criminal justice measures, such as “three strikes” laws, as an effective way to prevent crime. Bruce Fein, a lawyer and freelance editorial writer, is among those who maintain that the majority of violent crimes are committed by a small minority of career criminals. Such felons commit repeated offenses, according to Fein, and are only stopped from doing so by being imprisoned. If such criminals were given lengthy sentences on their first violent felony, he reasons, they would be prevented from committing a host of further crimes. “Unforgiving prison terms for felons work to reduce crime,” Fein concludes.
Many liberals, however, dispute whether harsh punishments can reduce crime rates. They point out that it is impossible to determine beforehand who is going to commit further crimes and who...
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Tougher Laws Can Prevent Crime
During the past 25 years, much of the crime debate has been dominated by criminologists who are philosophically opposed to punishment. In an attempt to advance their agenda, they have perpetrated a wide array of myths. The 1996 report of the bipartisan Council on Crime in America is an attempt to provide an alternative: a rigorous, empirical, real-world analysis of the current state of crime and punishment.
Steps to Preventing Crime
The report tells us that the nation faces at least three distinct but related crime challenges: preventing at-risk children from becoming criminals, protecting innocent people from becoming crime victims and restraining convicted criminals who are under the “supervision” of the criminal justice system (on probation, parole or pretrial release) from committing additional crimes.
• Prevention. We know that children born into poor families—no matter their race, region, religion, demographic stripe or socioeconomic status—if they have decent families and grow up with responsible, caring adults in their lives, are far less likely to become either victims or victimizers. We also know that not all children are born so lucky.
America is now home to nearly 70 million children 18 or under. As many as 15 million of them are growing up in relative poverty, often in places where the institutions of civil society—families, churches, schools, voluntary associations— are in...
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Imprisoning More Criminals Can Prevent Crime
Police and prisons represent the first line of defense in the fight against crime. In 1992 there were over 700,000 police officers in the United States (almost 50 percent more than two decades earlier), and over a million Americans in jails or prisons. The annual price tag for police and prisons is approaching $100 billion per year. In spite of all this, violent crimes per capita have risen 80 percent over the last two decades [since 1975].
Police and Prisons Can Reduce Crime
Does that mean our spending on police and prisons is a waste of money? Some observers have jumped to that conclusion, even going so far as to propose a moratorium on new prison construction. Research I have been conducting on the connection between police and prison availability and crime rates, however, comes to very different conclusions. Both police and prisons appear to be costeffective tools in controlling crime, and each has been increasing in number simply because the underlying crime trend has been sharply upward. High crime rates make additional police necessary; that is why Detroit has twice as many police officers per capita as Omaha. The link between the size of the prison population and crime rates is even more direct: unless a justice system is growing more lenient, prison populations will rise one for one with crime rates.
The best practical way to judge the effectiveness of police and imprisonment is to study “natural experiments” where...
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“Three Strikes” Laws Can Prevent Crime
On Oct. 1, 1993, Polly Klaas was kidnapped at knifepoint from her Petaluma, Calif., home, where she had been enjoying a sleep-over with two teenage girlfriends. Subsequently she was found dead on a road about 45 miles from her house—strangled. The man identified in court documents as the killer had been convicted repeatedly of the most serious and dangerous crimes, including kidnapping, robbery, burglary and assault. Yet he was released from prison a few months before Polly’s murder, serving only half of the 16-year sentence for his most recent felony.
High Profile Crimes by Repeat Offenders
More than a year earlier, Kimber Reynolds, an 18-year-old girl living in Fresno, Calif., was shot to death by a career criminal on parole, who killed her because she resisted his effort to steal her purse.
The nation was stunned in July 1993 by the fatal shooting of James Jordan, known as “Pops” to his basketball-star son, Michael Jordan. The elder Jordan’s death occurred at a rest stop on Interstate 95 in North Carolina, at the hands of two men with long criminal histories of violent crimes.
These incidents that spanned the country, and hundreds of others taking place in the states in between, have triggered a massive reaction among law-abiding citizens. People are expressing their urgent fears about violent crime and demanding that new measures be taken to change the criminal justice system— particularly to protect...
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Community Policing Strategies Can Prevent Crime
The car was parked on East 84th, near the intersection with Park Avenue, and in the window was a sign that said, “No Radio.” At one time, such signs were common here—“No Radio,” “No Nothing,” “Everything Stolen”—but it had been a long time since I’d seen one. I crossed the street to get a better look. Ah, Virginia tags. I guess they hadn’t heard.
A Dramatic Decline in Crime
But how could they not? A wonderful thing has happened to New York. It has rolled back the years. In terms of murder, it’s 1968—the year I left for Washington— but it feels like the 1950s, which is about as far back as I remember, when crime was an inconvenience, like the weather, and not a mortal threat that circumscribed your life. New York was never all that safe—this is Gotham City, after all—but rarely has it been as dangerous as it recently was.
The change has been dramatic, virtually miraculous and—to be perfectly honest—a bit inexplicable. The mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, is a former prosecutor who just hates the bad guys. He appointed a police commissioner, William Bratton, who started to make “quality of life” arrests. No drinking on the streets—that sort of thing. Earlier, as the chief of the transit police, Bratton had arrested fare jumpers and learned something amazing: A large number of them were armed. Arrest them for jumping a subway turnstile and you get them before they commit an armed robbery....
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Tougher Laws Will Not Prevent Crime
“Law and order” politicians and ideologues have long contended that the way to defeat violent crime is to lock up more people in prison for longer terms. The latest salvo in the conservative attack is a January 1996 report from the newlyformed Council on Crime in America, co-chaired by Griffin Bell and William Bennett. The Council describes itself as an organization that “seeks to provide rigorous, factual information” and portrays its report, The State of Violent Crime in America, by Council member John DiIulio, as a comprehensive analysis of the problem.
Correcting Myths About Crime and Imprisonment
In fact, the report actually misrepresents the realities of crime and punishment through a highly selective and, at times, deceptive use of government data. Following are some examples taken from the report’s heavily publicized “Ten Highlights”:
“More than half of convicted violent felons are not even sentenced to prison.” Wrong. The Council’s own numbers demonstrate that more than half of violent felons go to prison. Bureau of Justice Statistics data for 1992 (the most recent year for which data are available) put the number at 60 percent, with an additional 21 percent sentenced to jail terms. In total, four out of five people convicted of violent offenses end up behind bars. Those who do not tend to be those convicted of less serious assaults.
“One out of four criminal...
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Rehabilitating Criminals Can Prevent Crime
As the House and Senate prepare to vote on the final version of the $33 billion crime bill [the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act], the nation’s attention is rightly riveted on a crime crisis that has grown to alarming proportions. Yet in today’s frenzy to fight crime, no one consults the real experts: the criminals themselves.
Criminals Reveal How to Prevent Crime
Prison Fellowship, an organization I helped found after serving time for Watergate-related offenses, decided to do just that. In our newspaper, Inside Journal distributed free to prisoners nationwide, we invited inmates to write to us, answering the question, “What could have stopped you from breaking the law?”
Nearly 600 prisoners responded. Their letters are snapshots of families fractured by violence, of childhoods spent “not listening to anyone.” The inmates agonize over drug and alcohol addiction; they rage at years wasted behind bars. A number of the letters flicker with hopes and dreams—the urge to reunite with their wives and children, to rebuild their lives. Most of all, they gave honest answers to the factors that led to crime.
Here are the tips we gleaned from the inmates:
1) We can fight crime by building community ties. A prisoner in Maine wrote, “My main job was breaking and entering. What I’ve noticed most about the houses I have hit is that none of my victims lived in a crime watch district.”
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“Three Strikes” Laws Will Not Prevent Crime
Washington State’s Persistent Offender Accountability Act (Initiative 593) provided the country with its first look at the future of American criminal justice. Passed in November 1993 by 76% of the voters, the well-known “Three Strikes and You’re Out” provision mandates life imprisonment without parole for those convicted of a serious offense for the third time. Since then, California and New Mexico have passed similar ordinances, and 30 other states are considering Three Strikes legislation. The passage of Clinton’s anticrime bill [the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act] puts this policy in place for federal crimes.
Three Strikes Is a Popular Response to Crime
Recent polls have indicated that as much as 80% of the public supports some form of Three Strikes. Republican and Democratic politicians from across the nation are appeasing their crime-weary constituents by promising to make Three Strikes law in their states. New York’s Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo is supporting the bill in part to compensate for his unpopular opposition to the death penalty. In California, Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s speeches evoked the Polly Klaas case (12-year-old Klaas was kidnapped and murdered [in 1993] by a repeat offender) to drum up support for the initiative. Some overzealous legislators have cried to one-up their competition, calling for “Two Strikes and You’re Out” laws, and even “Three Strikes and You’re Dead.”
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