From The Prospect:

By Mark Kleiman

Why reducing incarceration and victimization should be complementary goals

Despite the dramatic fall in crime rates since 1994, crime continues to impose massive social costs, strongly concentrated by race and class.

Crime-avoidance behavior does far more damage than actual criminal acts. When businesses flee high-crime neighborhoods, they leave behind reduced services, fewer opportunities for economic growth, and diminished social capital and political clout. Just as concentrated poverty breeds crime, high crime sustains concentrated poverty.

Poor African Americans suffer disproportionately from the costs of crime. Nearly a million black Americans are behind bars, and a black male high school dropout has a better than even chance of serving prison time before the age of 30. Since most violent crime is intra-racial, African American victimization rates closely track the incidence of serious offending among African Americans.

The criminal-justice system is stacked against minorities and the poor but not only in the ways usually portrayed: high arrest rates, high incarceration rates, overaggressive — sometimes lawless — policing, and the cultivation of an informant culture that destroys interpersonal trust. The system also discriminates by under-policing and under-punishing crimes committed against poor and black people, especially poor black people in neighborhoods defined by high crime and concentrated poverty.

Because criminal-justice resources of all kinds (police, prosecution, and jails) are less unequally distributed than is victimization, offenses in high-crime areas receive, on average, less attention than similar crimes in low-crime areas. In other words, the constitutional guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” is not being honored. Changing that ought to count as a central progressive demand.

Thus, the United States’ criminal-justice system confronts not one massive problem but two: We have too much crime and too much (of the wrong kind) of punishment, both concentrated in poor, black neighborhoods. These problems need to be addressed in tandem by developing strategies of crime control that can replace mass incarceration both in punishing offenders’ past crimes and in preventing future ones. The goal should be to return the incarceration rate to no more than 140 per 100,000 people — the peak rate observed between 1900 and 1975, but only a fifth of the current level — while continuing to drive down crime. The good news is that we now know quite a lot about how to accomplish this goal.

The general claim that undifferentiated increases in social-service spending can reduce crime is unsupported by analysis or evidence. Yet specific interventions outside of the criminal-justice system can substantially reduce particular kinds of crime and aggressive behavior.

For example, a classroom-management technique known as the “good-behavior game,” in which a first-grade teacher divides students into teams that can win prizes if everyone behaves well, has been shown to reduce subsequent hard-drug use and conduct-disorder diagnoses by 50 percent, compared to randomly selected control groups. Though there is no published research showing crime-control benefits, conduct disorder is strongly correlated with crime.

Specific public-health measures can also reduce crime. Exposure to lead in early childhood has been linked to psychological impairments that can result in aggressive and criminal behavior as an adult. This has been demonstrated both by epidemiologist Herbert Needleman’s studies of delinquent and non — delinquent children and by statistical analysis correlating the de-leading of gasoline in the 1980s to the drop in crime in the 1990s. Completely de-leading residential buildings, estimates the economist Richard Nevin, could result in a 5 percent reduction in crime, which would offset the cost of lead-removal and perhaps yield future savings.

In these examples, however, crime reduction resulted as an unexpected side effect of a program designed around other goals. Similar gains could be seen if school districts, health departments, housing agencies, and child-welfare offices designed effective crime-control programs, but they rarely set out specifically to reduce crime. Until the directors of these agencies start to think of crime reduction as part of their mission, we will continue to miss opportunities to drive down the crime rate.

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