Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Violence Up, Violence Down - Can Americans Really Be Getting Less Violent?

“Do you think there’s a lot more violence in this country than there used to be, or are we just hearing about more of it?” my coworker asked last week.

It’s a good question. The established answer – established by people I like to listen to, like the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, is that violent crime rates have been plunging for years, and continue to do so.

I have to say that I find that hard to believe. Poverty rates are higher than ever and climbing steeply, and inequality is growing exponentially. One in seven people is on some form of food assistance, and that doesn’t include the people who need it but can’t get it. Jobs are scarcer, more and more people are long-term unemployed, more and more have lost their homes – all of which adds up to a lot more desperation, and I assume that in this country as in nearly every other, desperation yields violence.

Moreover, our nation’s conduct in the world has grown ever more violent. In the last ten years, we’ve gone from no official wars to three. We’ve come to accept indefinite detention and torture as normal, and given up dozens of rights we thought were sacrosanct throughout the last century. We have more veterans coming home with PTSD, and added to that things like climate insecurity and fear of nuclear disaster. And we have, as we have for the last thirty years, an ever escalating prison population, which means an ever escalating population of damaged and traumatized people in our communities. We have unprecedented expenditures for “Homeland Security” and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) running checkpoints in front of elementary schools.

Yet, according to a New York Times article in May, “The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years.” The article goes on to give details: “Nationally, murder fell 4.4 percent last year. Forcible rape — which excludes statutory rape and other sex offenses — fell 4.2 percent. Aggravated assault fell 3.6 percent. Property crimes — including burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson — fell 2.8 percent, after a 4.6 percent drop the year before.”
So if they are not lying to us, what could possibly account for this stunningly counterintuitive reality?

The law & order people would certainly argue that our increasingly repressive criminal justice policies are bearing fruit. But that would run counter to the received wisdom of organizations like the ACLU which have demonstrated that increasing penalties does not lead to less crime. In fact, says Cal law professor Frank Zimring in the Times article, “As the percentage of people behind bars has decreased in the past few years, violent crime rates have fallen as well.”

People like Jeffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone founder) would argue that it’s programs like his, Head Start and charter schools inculcating groovy values in kids at younger and younger ages which is starting to pay off.

Or is it possible that things like Alternatives to Violence Projects, Community Dispute Resolution Centers and Men Against Violence have begun to have an impact?

I’d certainly like to believe these last two possibilities, and no doubt, there is some incremental shifts that have occurred. Physical violence, known as “corporal punishment” was a staple of most households and many schools when I was growing up. Now hitting as official policy is pretty rare among parents and school districts, though there’s certainly plenty of child abuse going on. Probably fewer kids are learning at very young ages that hitting is a legitimate way to get what you want, and that probably has some little ripple effect on the society.

But what I really believe is that it’s a question of finding what you look for. My light summer reading for this week is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s an extraordinary book, and one of the things it does masterfully is explain why the vast majority of law enforcement resources in this country are devoted to arresting nonviolent drug offenders, who account for over 60% of the prison population. While the rhetoric of the War on Drugs says that they are going after “kingpins” and “violent narcotraffickers,” the fact is that 83% of drug arrests are for simple possession, not distribution or sale. Since 1980, the number of people in prison for a drug offense has increased from 41,000 to 500,000; nearly half of drug arrests are for marijuana.

The War on Drugs has brought billions of federal dollars to state and local police forces, explains author Michelle Alexander: “Each arrest, in theory, would net a given city or county about $153 in state and federal funding. Non-drug-related policing brought no federal dollars, even for violent crime.” Not sure what that “in theory” is doing there, but we can see that “violence” may only seem to be decreasing because police departments aren’t investigating it and disillusioned and terrified community members are not reporting it. In other words, violence might be “down” because there’s no money in it.

The flip side of that interpretation of finding what you look for is that popular media increasingly looks for sensationalized violence to entertain us with. “If it bleeds, it leads,” and with people having so many more news sources available, all-gore channels have become more and more common (with, of course, the obligatory final moment of faux-lightness as the perky blonde anchorwoman tells us some heartwarming story about a cat).

A BBC News report on the falling violent crime phenomenon (which, note, does not actually say falling “violence”) poses nine possible explanations, ranging from Obama to the availability of abortion (obviously, the author of that study is not clued into realities, which are that abortions are getting less and less available) to this gem:

“A study released last month suggested video games were keeping young people off the streets and therefore away from crime. Researchers in Texas working with the Centre for European Economic Research said this "incapacitation effect" more than offset any direct impact the content of the games may have had in encouraging violent behaviour.”

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