It's The Criminals, Stupid! 1

Criminals create more criminals.

The United States imprisons five times as many people per capita as other industrial nations.  Aside from humanitarian concerns, mass incarceration is expensive: Harvard sociologist Bruce Western states that it costs an average of $30,000 to lock up one person for one year.  Forests have been felled debating the reasons for our high incarceration rate.

All the arguments boil down to differences of opinion about the basic nature of man.  Are men born basically good, or are they born basically bad?

There's another debate concerning what to do with criminals.  Conservatives believe that individuals should be held responsible for their own actions.  If someone commits a crime, the individual is at fault and should pay the penalty which usually means going to jail.

About the only thing that can be said for our current penal system is that criminals don't commit crimes against innocents while locked up.  This reduces the crime rate for a few years at vast expense, but separating criminals for society for so long makes it nearly impossible for them to find a job to support themselves when they get out.

Liberals assert that crime is society's fault.  Neglecting the inconvenient truth that crime rates were far lower during the Depression when everyone in America was a great deal poorer than today, and neglecting the even more inconvenient truth that crime has continued to decline throughout today's Great Recession, liberals assert that the "root causes" of crime are bad neighborhoods and poverty.  This justifies their efforts to spend billions to create vast welfare systems which, by improving blighted neighborhoods and eliminating poverty, will reduce crime and bring about utopia on earth.

Welfare Wars

The London riots showed that the 60-year-old British welfare state has brought neither peace on earth nor good will toward men.  To the contrary, being told that they were entitled to everything they see on TV without having to work justified looting in the rioters' minds.

The violence provided a living demonstration that the welfare state doesn't work in the sense of connecting welfare recipients to British society; they end up being enemies of law and order.  The more they receive, the more they demand.

Recent studies have shown that crime is not uniformly distributed throughout the population: a very small percentage of individuals account for the majority of crimes.  Science News, one of the more politically-correct journals around, recently published "Most prisoners come from few neighborhoods" which shows that not only is crime concentrated in a relatively small part of the population, those criminals live in fairly localized neighborhoods.  Robert Sampson, a sociologist from Harvard, found that certain disadvantaged sections of cities have acted as incarceration hot spots in the midst of a general downturn in crime.

Ballooning incarceration rates in these poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, especially among young men, create a sense of collective cynicism and fatalism that fuels further misconduct and imprisonment, Sampson said. ...

“Mass incarceration in the United States has a deep local concentration in relatively few disadvantaged communities,” Sampson asserted.

The question is, what to do about it?  The social, human, and economic costs of criminal "hot spots" are getting out of control.  Even though politicians like to look "tough on crime" by writing new laws and specifying longer jail sentences, we can barely afford the prison population we now have.

Harvard looked into the problem:

Chicago crime data for 1990 to 1995 show that a large majority of prison and jail populations came from two poor, black sections of the city, Sampson and Loeffler found. During that time, overall rates of crime and violence declined in Chicago while incarceration rates rose in those two areas.

"Aha!" cried the do-gooders.  "We said poor neighborhoods cause crime.  Crime went down elsewhere, crime went up there.  Let's clean up those slums."

The liberals won that conversation for a time in the early 2000s, as massive high-rise "slab slums" were taken down and new housing built at great public expense.  What happened?

But between 2000 and 2005, the geographic location of each incarceration hot spot in Chicago shifted slightly to the southwest as former public housing residents sought new homes. Incarceration rates in the two new hot spots remained about the same as those in the old ones from a decade earlier, Sampson said.  [emphasis added]

Taking down the rotting high-rise welfare warehouses and building new, presumably nicer housing didn't change behavior at all.  Criminals who moved out of the former hot spots remained criminals.  Their arrival turned their new neighborhoods into "incarceration hot spots."

It wasn't welfare housing that caused crime, it was all those criminals who lived in welfare housing.  Tearing down high-crime slabs and dispersing the residents doesn't reduce crime, it merely scatters criminal elements to other neighborhoods.

Reducing the Social Cost of Crime

We at Scragged agree with the Harvard researchers that something ought to be done, provided that whatever we do can be shown to work instead of just wasting more money.

Teenagers and children expressed some of the grimmest attitudes. “Many kids said they didn’t expect to live past age 25 or to avoid ending up in prison,” Sampson said.

This wholesale destruction of hope among the young is a major reason why a change in strategy is required.  As one would expect, the research study concluded with a suggestion for more research, but then it offered hope:

Researchers need to focus on how the concentration of incarceration within certain poor neighborhoods undermines the quality of life for everyone living there, he added.

Not all poor neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots, Sampson emphasized. In earlier research, he and his colleagues found a link between reduced violence in some poor Chicago areas and a willingness among neighbors to act as mentors to local children and otherwise intervene on behalf of the common good.  [emphasis added]

What astounding findings!  Crime goes down if adults act as mentors to children!  Crime goes down if people intervene on behalf of the common good!

This used to be called "neighborliness."  Human beings are intensely tribal; we don't thrive as lonely individuals.  As in Japan, American groups get along much better when people make informal arrangements to promote the common good.

These crime hot spots lack people who intervene to promote the common good.  It's not poverty that leads to high crime rates, it's lack of social cohesion.  Neighborhoods don't generate crimes, criminals generate crimes.  Merely moving criminals around doesn't reduce crime or vandalism; we need to seek mechanisms to increase social cohesion in poor neighborhoods.

This article has framed the problem.  The next article in this series seeks to explain why welfare neighborhoods have so few adults who'll expend the efforts needed to promote the common good - government policies make it impossible for anyone to be neighborly.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

You're hitting the nail right on the head. I wrote my undergraduate thesis--and followed-up with more research for my graduate thesis--on the "sense of community" in Reading, PA (recently ranked the poorest city with a population of 60,000+ in the country). Lack of cohesion... a sense of apathy... is the cause of so many problems in Reading and elsewhere. Why should anyone take responsibility for anything (or anyone else) when the gub'ment will do it for me?

October 17, 2011 10:53 AM you suppose a return to following the Biblical 10 would do the trick. Nah, they'd never go for that....

October 17, 2011 12:34 PM

Those 10 rules are so binding and the antithesis to a free and open society ;)
(I say that, of course, tongue-in-cheek)

October 17, 2011 12:49 PM

What's wrong with "thou shalt not kill?" or "thou shalt steal?" That's the basis of civilization. Even gangs know better than to kill each other or mess with each other's stuff.

What's anti-liberty about that? We confuse liberty with license.

October 17, 2011 6:00 PM

Of course I agree with you, Julia. I hope you know that I was being sarcastic..

October 17, 2011 7:06 PM

It's not about fixing crimes for liberals. It's about control and increasing central management. They don't want crime to go down, they want it to go up. Increased crime means more cops, more spending, more studies.

October 17, 2011 7:37 PM
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