From the perspective of his own experience and the conclusions from two recent books, this author’s article from Claremont examines criminal justice developments over the past several decades, it’s good; and I have both books mentioned, they are also quite good.
Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention,” John Jay wrote in The Federalist, “that of providing for their SAFETY seems to be the first.” Although public concern with the crime problem ebbs and flows (largely tracking the crime rate), no function of government is more indispensable to securing the “Blessings of Liberty” promised by the architects of the American constitutional order. Fortunately, the crime rate in the United States is much lower today than it was a few decades ago, when crime dominated the news. Even so, in 2014 (the most recent year with complete published data), the FBI reported 14,249 murders; 116,645 rapes; 325,802 robberies; 741,291 aggravated (felony) assaults; and more than 1.7 million burglaries. And we know from victimization surveys (which ask about crimes whether or not the victim contacted the police) that these figures from official police reports understate the number of crimes by about 40% for robbery, aggravated assault, and burglary, and by about two-thirds for rape. Thus, adding simple (misdemeanor) assaults (not reported by the FBI) and counting crimes whether or not reported to the police, the National Crime Victimization Survey estimated a total of 5.4 million violent crimes and nearly 3 million burglaries in 2014. Put another way, each day in the United States more than 14,000 persons become victims of a violent crime and more than 8,000 homes or businesses are burglarized. That there were many more crimes not long ago should not blind us to just how large the crime problem remains, and just how many innocent Americans continue to fall prey to the depredations of the lawless.
In The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, Barry Latzer, emeritus professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, presents a sweeping “synthesis of history and criminology” to document and explain the great changes in the rate of violent crime in modern America: the drop in violent crime after World War II into the “golden years” of the 1950s, the “great crime rise” that began in the mid-1960s, and the “great downturn” that characterized the mid-1990s through 2014. The book grew out of his essay “The Great Black Hope,” which first appeared in the Winter 2008/09 CRB. Although Latzer acknowledges that “sophisticated statistical techniques, such as multiple regression analysis,” have made significant contributions to criminological research, he insists that quantitative criminology cannot “replace a deep knowledge of a society, its particular history, and the workings of its criminal justice system.” That deep knowledge is on display in this impressive volume.
What, then, accounts for the rather dramatic changes in crime rates throughout the 20th century? Crime theorists, writes Latzer, “tend to fall into two camps.” One group attrib-utes crime to “economic and social adversities,” while the other sees the key in culture. Latzer places himself firmly in the latter camp: “Because there is no consistent correlation between the extent of a group’s disadvantage and its violent behaviors, it is reasonable to conclude that culture (or subculture for groups in a large collective) is the ultimate causal factor.” Along the way, he assesses a variety of specific variables that affect crime rates. Lower alcohol consumption in the 1950s helped reduce crime, while the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early ’90s drove it up, especially violent crime. When the nation’s proportion of teenagers and young men grew in the 1960s and ’70s, so did crime; yet this demographic change accounted for relatively little of the overall crime increase. Though crime went up in the 1960s as poverty went down, seemingly disproving the simple connection between poverty and crime, the growth of the American middle class throughout the 20th century helped reduce violent crime, because serious violence is largely the domain of impoverished neighborhoods. Urbanization in itself did not increase crime overall—American cities used to be safer than the countryside (especially the rural South)—but urbanization apparently increased robberies by putting offenders in close proximity to numerous strangers carrying cash and valuables.
Central to Latzer’s account is the huge disparity in violent-crime rates between the nation’s white and black populations. Despite large-scale economic, social, and demographic changes, homicide rates “over the entire twentieth century and into the twenty-first” were at least seven times higher among blacks (both as offenders and as victims) than among whites. When crime was dropping, members of both groups enjoyed the benefits; when crime was increasing, both groups suffered. Yet throughout, black criminals’ greater propensity to murder and commit other violent crimes endured. It would appear that culture is indeed “the ultimate causal factor.” Drawing on earlier insights of political scientist James Q. Wilson and homicide historian Randolph Roth, Latzer attributes this cultural difference to “the distinctive history of blacks in the United States,” including the resentment and alienation fostered by Jim Crow, the exposure of blacks to the “acceptability of interpersonal violence in the South,” the movement of former slaves to Southern cities where they occupied the bottom of the economic order, the availability of cheap handguns, and “the social and economic turmoil of the post-Reconstruction years.” “All of these conditions,” he concludes, “created the criminal culture associated with lower-class African Americans for more than a century.”