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Anti-Crime Strategies for the 1990s: A Report on the Campaign for an Effective Crime Policy Conference


December 1994

by Eric E. Sterling, President, The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

An outstanding conference, "Crime and Politics in the 1990s -- A National Leadership Conference," was held Dec. 2 and 3 outside Washington, DC. About 300 policymakers from around the nation came to the first conference sponsored by the Campaign for An Effective Crime Policy (CECP), which was founded in 1992. This conference was one of the best conferences I have ever been to.


The CECP goal is a "less politicized, more informed debate" about crime policy. It has organized public officials to sign "A Call for a Rational Debate on Crime and Punishment," and they have obtained signatures from 800 criminal justice professionals and public officials. The key language in the Call is that: "Too often sentencing practices, laws and prison release policies needlessly hold offenders in prison, sometimes for long terms, when community-based alternatives would safely serve society's interest in punishment." Other points in the Call are that prisons are high cost, and the public and public officials should avoid the lure of simple and quick-fix solutions. For more information on the Campaign for An Effective Crime Policy and the "Call for a Rational Debate on Crime and Punishment" contact Beth Carter at 202-628-1903.


Former Attorney General Elliott Richardson kicked off the conference. He observed that the intensity of fear about crime has created an imperative: "Don't just stand there, do something!" But, he pointed out, if you don't know how to deal with a problem, failure is inevitable. Disappointment from that failure fosters further cynicism in the institutions of government. [Philanthropist Robert C. Linnell, the founder of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, recognized in 1988 that the "don't just stand there" imperative leads to dumping upon the police the responsibility for solving the drug problem, and that the inability of the police to solve such problems hurts the police as a civic institution. --EES]


Phil Heymann, the former Deputy Attorney General, gave an excellent overview of the quandaries in addressing the problem of crime. First he observed, there are actually lots of uncertainties about crime and its solutions: Are the dangers growing? Do we know the causes of crime? Do we know what will work to prevent it? Secondly, the effort to address the crime problem and address those questions is being considered in a climate of high-stakes politics, highly charged ideology, and nightly doses of televised fear.

What is often called the conservative approach is more prisons, longer sentences, and restricting the courtroom procedures available to the accused. The "liberal" perspective emphasizes the absence of jobs, inadequate education, dysfunctional families, and weak gun laws, and those are what need to be changed. The conservative approach is more comforting. It doesn't promise results, it promises at least a defense against the criminals, and it is not racist on the surface.

The battle is between common sense and ideology on both sides. Heymann suggested that we need to develop the following habit: Reward those in politics who use and respect facts and who are skeptical about ideology.


First, he said, let's identify the problem accurately. The 1994 crime bill never identified the problem. For example, the horrifying and horrid abduction of Polly Klaas is not at the center of America's crime problem (although the inadequate treatment and incapacitation of her abductor is an important failing of our system). Second, we need to question proposed solutions, especially if they are ideologically satisfying. Someimes the solutions are only guesses. Be skeptical about solutions that make you feel comfortable. Third, be comprehensive. There is no single answer. It is not enough to be tougher or to be more understanding. Be honest about the inconsistencies. Fourth, make it a part of our politics to be harsh about lies, direct about our mistakes, and to correct errors. Put a cost on grandstanding and ignorance.

Since problems don't define themselves, we must focus and ask: what is the problem? Lack of economic opportunity? Racism? Lack of urban development? Is it a generation problem, explained by demographics? A general breakdown of moral values? Where is the problem? In the country at large or in the inner city? The fact that FEAR of crime is the number one concern suggests a focus on violence, but what violence?

America is far more violent than Western Europe and Japan. But, in Heymann's view, there is no evidence that anything dramatically has been happening in violence as a whole during the last 20 years, except in one place where homicide has doubled in the last 6 or 7 years -- defined demographically as young, male, poor, and largely minority, and defined geographically in our inner cities. This violence makes life intolerable in urban centers. One can't raise children. One can't leave one's house. It should be noted that generally the victims of this violence are the same group as the perpetrators.

The conservative agenda has the following elements:

  1. Longer incarceration. This is a sensible aim -- if it is to incapacitate -- to lock up those likely to be dangerous, as long as they are likely to be dangerous. "Three strikes and you're out" provisions lock up armed robbers long after they are likely to be robbers. Holding such a person a prisoner from age 55 to 85 serves no good purpose.

  2. Pressure the states to require that their prisoners serve 85% of their sentence. [This is being called "truth in sentencing."] Each jurisdiction needs to make sure that prisoners serve the appropriate number of years related to their dangerousness and that it is appropriate punishment. How they decide that number is each state's business. That number has nothing to do with some percentage of some arbitrary maximum. An 85% mandate to states doesn't make sense.

  3. The "conservatives" assume that you cannot trust judges, they are "too liberal." There is simply no basis for this assumption.

  4. More prison cells are needed. There are 1 million prison cells nationwide. Half are occupied by non-violent offenders. 30% are occupied by drug offenders. In the Federal prisons, 20% are occupied with persons serving 5 or 10 year mandatory minimums who have no priors so serious they required a sentence of more than 60 days, no violence, and no association with a sizable drug trafficking organization. There are plenty of prison cells, but too many of them are not being used properly.

  5. Sentences need to be longer. Jacqueline Cohen (Carnegie-Mellon University) has demonstrated that we have most of the benefit of incarceration, that is, most of the hard-core repeat offenders are in prison now. Those who are repeat, serious offenders are generally subject to long sentences now; no new laws are needed.

  6. Drug dealers don't need longer sentences. Drug dealing is one crime that is not solved by incapacitation because of drug market economics. New drug dealers come forward to fill the markets when dealers are taken off the streets.

In looking at the cost to society of imprisonment, the conservatives don't count the costs of being in prison to the prisoners at all. The liberals count those costs too much.


Will more police deter crime? Of the 15 or 20 studies of the question of whether more police on the street will help, all but one come to a negative conclusion. Provide more money for police departments? There is strong reason for skepticism, unless it generates a shift to community policing.

Can the Federal criminal justice system do something about juvenile crime? No. It certainly cannot provide any deterrence to juvenile offenders. The Federal courts natinwide handle less than 200 juvenile cases per year, and there is no Federal juvenile corrections facility. Even significant expansion would be trivial in the overall area of juvenile crime.

Expand the death sentence? It is also trivial as a practical matter. There are perhaps 24 executions per year compared to 24,000 homicides per year. Even substantially increasing the number of executions is unlikely to be a deterrent.

Repeal the Exclusionary Rule? It is a great bargain. The exclusionary rule prevents evidence obtained through police misconduct from being used in a criminal prosecution. At practically no cost, it provides a very high benefit in lawful police behavior. In application, the rule results in a defeat to the prosecution in a very small number of cases, and those are mostly drug cases not violent crime cases.

Heymann didn't spare the "liberal" agenda. As included in the crime bill, it is a haphazard hodgepodge. It will be impossible to check what works. One rationale for some of these programs is that they will "fill the time of juveniles." We don't know what works.

Most of the things that liberals think work, government doesn't do well! Building strong families? Building moral character? Creating opportunity structures?

The case for prevention is to look at the age cohorts. 18-year olds are the most violent age group. The recent 18-year olds are the most violent in history! Then look at the larger groups of 10-year olds or 5-year olds. What will happen in their lives that will be different from what has happened in the lives of the current violent 18-year olds? Very simply, we have to do something to prevent them from being as violent 8 years or 13 years from now as their older siblings are now.


Heymann then turned to the real problem area: teen violence. In 1991, the homicide victim rate for ages 15-18 set a new record, and in 1992, a new record for the homicide victim rate for age 12-15 was set. In America the homicide rate for ages 12-18 is 40 times Japan's and 20 times Britain's. This is a real problem, not a political opportunity.

Compare the economics of drug market employment to the changes in other employment economics. If unskilled jobs are shifted from the U.S. to other countries, that is not easily correctable in the U.S. labor market. But if the unskilled workers who sell drugs are shifted to prison, those workers are easily replaceable. The disruption of drug markets by drug enforcement and incarceration is only temporary.

With the emergence of crack markets and the growth in the number of cocaine sellers, the demand for guns increased and has now spread out.

The problem of youth violence in the cities presents a greater danger to those living there than any civilized country would tolerate. To address that problem, we have to get ideology out of the way because ideology frames the issue as good people versus bad people, or attacks analysis as equivocation and says that research is the problem.

Since 1980 America has tripled our prison population, but neither violence nor the hard-core demand for drugs has improved. Either imprisonment doesn't do any good (which is unlikely) or "something" is taking place in our cities and among our young that is increasing the propensity of the young to be violent and use drugs. That "something" is barely being held in check by our current rapid increase in imprisonment rates, but we cannot keep it in check that way forever. So we must take prevention seriously in order to deal with that "something."

Conservatives recognize that communities, and their attitudes regarding juvenile crime, are critical variables for fighting crime, yet inconsistent with that recognition, they call for a profound increase in imprisonment to control juvenile violent crime. Unfortunately, taking measures to lock up a community's children undermines community support for law enforcement. When 55% of the black youth of a city are under correctional or court control, there is diminished cooperation between the community and the police in solving crime.

Heymann concluded by warning that "something big" is happening on the streets, and charged us to identify it and do somthing about it.


Professor Alfred Blumstein, Carnegie-Mellon University, and past president of the American Society of Criminology, then presented crime data most effectively.

What's happening with crime rates? The most reliable measures in the Uniform Crime Reports are homicide and robbery, which are "reasonably unambiguous." The murder rate from 1972-93 has been "trendless." It peaked in 1980, reflecting the passing of the baby boomers from their peak crime committing age, and came down until the crack epidemic. Robbery has shown similar ups and downs. Burglary, however, has been coming down since 1980 fairly steadily. Why? Robbery is more convenient than burglary. The crack epidemic developed a need for quick cash. Burglary requires fencing stolen goods -- it is too slow for getting the cash to get another hit.

America's incarceration rate was largely stable from 1925 to 1975. (In fact, Blumstein, along with Jacqueline Cohen, wrote a paper in 1973 proposing a theory of the stability of punishment.) However, Robert Martinson also wrote an influential paper in 1973 arguing that as far as rehabilitation in prison goes, nothing works. Liberals responded by saying, if nothing works, intervene less. Conservatives said, if nothing is working, don't let them out. In the late 70s and early 80s, conservatives won and there has been exponential growth in prison populations.

It may be true that without the incarceration increase, crime could be much worse. Most members of the public know that they would be deterred by long prison sentences. But those in the streets are not deterred. Half the growth in the prison population has been drug offenders. In 1986, 16% of new commitments to prison from the courts were for drugs. In 1990, it was 30%.

In 1986, 40% of those arrested for drug offenses were black. In 1990, 64% of those arrested for drug offenses were black. Of black males born between 1962-68, 25% already have a drug arrest on their record. What effect does this have on diminishing the deterrent effect of future punishments?


There is an important age/crime curve. Plotting the rate of arrest by age for burglary and for robbery shows a similar pattern. For burglaries the rate drops to half the peak by age 21, and for robberies by age 25. Very few are committed by those age 50 and older.

The murder rate pattern has been different. There was a flat peak that covered the ages 18 through 24 and that pattern prevailed from 1970 through 1985. Beginning in 1985 for all ages 18-years and under, there was a doubling of the murder arrest rate, and there has been no growth for ages 24-years and above.

Juvenile drug arrest rates have also gone through important changes. Through the 1970s, the rate of arrests of white juveniles for drugs was higher than for black juveniles. Beginning in 1985 the black juvenile arrest rate for drugs increased by 20-25% per year, and has also doubled by 1990.

Blumstein sees 1985 as the watershed year for crime and violence because of the onset of crack cocaine. The crack epidemic changed the drug marketplace. Cocaine powder was usually sold in quantities of multiple doses, whereas crack was much more often purchased one dose at a time. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of transactions, which required many more sellers, which helped lead to the recruitment of kids as sellers. Increasing the penalties for adult crack sellers also encouraged sellers to recruit kids to sell drugs for them. Kids have little sense of risk, or concern about arrest or imprisonment. In the drug market the dealers have to carry guns to protect themselves from being robbed, and so the kids recruited also carried guns.

Kids are highly networked, compared to adults. They are extremely concentrated, going to the same schools, belonging to the same kinds of clubs, and hanging out in the same streets. The practice of carrying guns for protection or for status, rapidly diffused among the non-drug selling kids. Guns in the 90s are what sneakers were in the 80s -- accessories for fashion and status. Kids have always fought with each other. But now guns have replaced fists.

Since 1985, the white juvenile murder rate grew 0%, and the black juvenile murder rate grew 120%. Looking at that data, Blumstein asks, "This has to be considered as one of the costs of criminalization of drug markets."

In attempting to deter drug selling, we are near the limit in the sanctions we can threaten. In Pennsylvania, for example, the sentencing guideline for the sale of 100 grams of cocaine is already the same as that for voluntary manslaughter.

Many of these kids are not being socialized. 30% of births today are to unwed mothers -- 68% for blacks, 22% for whites. These kids are at higher risk for becoming perpetrators or victims of violence. Blumstein argues that media violence has a more stimulative effect on kids who have been poorly socialized, than those who are well socialized. And these poorly socialized kids suffer from a more serious lack of employment opportunities, which, if they existed, would be a powerful restraining effect.


  1. Get guns out of the hands of kids. We don't have to fight about broad gun control laws. We need to be more focussed and aggressive in searching for guns on kids on the streets. That will often mean in minority communities, and community support for that exists but has to be mobilized.

  2. Attack the urban gun supply for kids. We have been obsessed for the last 15 years with getting drugs off the streets and out of the schools, and at least comparable effort should be directed at getting the guns out of the juvenile environment. Think of how unusual it is to hear of the prosecution of those who are selling guns illegally or to kids.

  3. Shrink the illicit drug markets by taking the certifiable addicts out. Put them on drug maintenance. There are reported to be 250,000 addicts who are supported by SSI. We shouldn't be surprised that many of them use their SSI money to buy drugs. We need to take them out of the drug markets by medicalizing their drug supply.

  4. Find better ways to socialize kids when their parents are not doing what we expect. We need extensive community-based programs to raise kids.

Blumstein opened a window of concern for the future. The age of 18 is a year of peak criminality. Today, we have the smallest cohort of 18-year olds that we will see for at least the next 15 years. The number of 18-year olds has been going down. Next year, the number is going to start going up. Because the cohort size of young people is going to increase, there will be more murders, unless we see a drop in the murder rate.

There is an especially big growth in the number of African-American kids now 4- to 9-years old. This is a population crying out for our attention, and, as a society, we need to find a means to divert them from becoming as violent as their big brothers.