THE CRIME DROP IN AMERICA by Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman (Editors). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 330 pp. Cloth $54.95. ISBN: 0-521-79296-7. Paper $19.95
Reviewed by Martin D. Schwartz, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University.
Everyone has her or his favorite theory on why crime has dropped in America recently. My favorite is Robert Ludlum's (2000) suggestion, in a suspense thriller that it was because of a test in New York City of a spy system operated by a shadowy agency that allowed the spies to call in anonymous tips to the New York City police.
However, in the slightly more real world many people, especially police and politicians, have been just as quick and imaginative in claiming the credit for themselves, often winning some media and public praise for these positions despite a lack of evidence to back up these claims. Unfortunately, an important reason for the lack of evidence is the weak nature of criminal justice statistics. If we believe that most rapes are unreported, how can we be sure that any change in rape rates are due to offender behaviors rather than victim changes in reporting patterns? How is it possible then to even tackle the question of why rates are going up or down. The most common solution, and the one adopted by the authors of the chapters of this book, is to center in on homicide. Criminologists have long taken it as an article of faith that, while victims can easily hide being raped, only a limited number of bodies can be concealed forever. If homicide rates are not perfect, they are the best crime rates we have.
The debate over the causes of the crime drop has been especially ideological. Conservatives argue that there is no need to look at the root causes of crime, and that massive policing and imprisonment can cut back on crime. Liberals argue that there is no evidence that police actions reduce crime. the point remains that no matter what the crime rate, the ones who commit such crimes as murder tend to be those who suffer the most from economic and social oppression.
The authors of this reader tend to be what many have called "administrative criminologists." They do not endorse or even discuss the critical or liberal call for major changes in society, but they do not blindly carry a banner for ideological conservatives, casting instead a searching eye on claims that massive imprisonment or zero tolerance policing has been effective. They tend to be mathematically sophisticated criminologists who have produced a fine book that can at times be intimidating to read. Simply put, however, as with all top mathematical works, their arguments are made clearly and even the more innumerate should be able to benefit from this book easily. Given its relatively low price, it is an important resource for all sides on this political debate to own. The book itself does not take on many political issues. Andrew Karmen's (2001) new book might be better for that. However, as a
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resource book, for a set of facts, and for an understanding of the extreme complexity behind the "bumper sticker" arguments made by politicians, this book is absolutely invaluable.
The basic facts are simple. After a long period of a U. S. homicide rate of about 5 per 100,000 people, the rate began to climb in 1965. By 1980, the rate began a slow and steady drop up to the present day for adults, but the rate for juveniles dramatically increased in the late 1980s. By 1992, the rate began to drop even for juveniles, with the total rate now back down near to the 1965 level. Most of these authors are willing to attribute the 1960s increases to the loss of legitimacy of the American state, although how this is tied directly to interpersonal violence between intimates, for example, is not made clear. Certain demographics related to the baby boomers kept the rate high in the 1970s. However, the juvenile rate in the 1980s can only be attributed to crack wars.
Blumstein and Wallman, in setting the tone, strongly point out the need to look at various markers separately. For example, during the 1980s juvenile homicide went up, but adult homicide went down. Gun violence, especially handgun violence, accounted for almost all of the increase in homicides. The rest of this book takes on various segments of this argument. Like many books of readings, consciously or not the editors seem to have put the best chapters up front, with the ones toward the back of lesser and lesser value.
Right up front, Garen Wintemute takes on the issue of handguns, and argues that one reason for the increase in lethality was the change by American gun manufacturers to producing a new generation of Saturday night specials, very cheap machine pistols. One of the most interesting mathematical analyses he performs suggests that, although police sweeps and stop and frisk actions may have had limited effects, the most effective measure may have been the Brady Bill. Many commentators have wanted to compare the crime rates of criminals to, say, hunters, and then to argue that the Brady Bill was a royal pain for hunters. Wintemute instead compares those who were denied guns under the Brady Bill to those who might have been denied under the spirit of the law, but were allowed to purchase the guns under the letter of the law: persons arrested but who had the charges dropped for technical reasons, those who plea bargained correctly, etc. Although popular logic is that criminals will just get the guns another way, in fact Wintemute found that they did not. Those who had arrest records but were sold the guns had a much higher rate of later conviction for gun crimes than those who were denied gun purchases.
Another factor conservatives claim has reduced the crime rate is incarceration. Certainly it would be hard to find a factor that has changed more. Incarceration rates doubled in the 1980s, and then doubled again in the 1990s. William Spelman here provides a learned and complex analysis of the very detailed factors that must go into any analysis of this sort, such as the diminishing returns of locking up more and more minor offenders, and locking up for long periods of time persons who are beginning to slow down their criminal careers. Overall, he finds that perhaps 25 percent of the crime drop can be attributed to the prison buildup, a number reached here also by Richard Rosenfeld by different mathematical means. Both, however, question whether this decrease is worth the social and financial costs of the
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imprisonment binge this country has gone through.
Of course, although an enormous array of politicians have led the charge forward to take credit for the crime drop, it is usually based on their support of the police. Many police departments have argued that it was their policies, ranging from zero tolerance to aggressive patrolling, that were responsible. In one of the most systematic examinations of police changes of the 1990s, John Eck and Edward Maguire find it hard to substantiate virtually any of the police claims, mostly because the policies involved were implemented after the crime drops began. This included putting more police on the streets, community policing, zero-tolerance policing, gun interdiction patrols, attempts to shut down retail drug markets, and problem- oriented policing. In general, they feel that in a specific area with specific problems, a coordinated variety of police tactics may indeed reduce violence, but it is unlikely that this will be reflected in national or regional homicide rates.
An interesting chapter is included here by Bruce Johnson, Andrew Golub and Eloise Dunlap on the history of the rise and fall of drug markets in New York City over the past 30 years. Of course, these authors in various combinations have published extensively on this subject, and this piece is mainly a reflection of the earlier work. Its value in the context of this book is mainly to help understand some of the middle range arguments of other authors. For the mathematically impaired, it certainly is the easiest to read. It is an excellent introduction to what drug dealers and users believed, did, and acted. These authors believe, as do some others in this book, that crack markets changed the nature of homicide, fundamentally changed the robbery conduct norms, and increased woman and child abuse. Their most important argument is that the main reason why the crack market has decreased dramatically is because the current generation of youth simply does not want to smoke it. The negative role models of crack addicts in their lives has convinced youth even in the worst neighborhoods that marijuana, perhaps with a bit (not a lot) of malt liquor, is a much better way to get high.
Perhaps the least persuasive chapter in this book is the econometrics chapter by Jeffrey Grogger, who has developed and found some evidence for a rational choice model that suggests that property crime is more evident where there are fewer jobs and the jobs that exist pay lower salaries. He attempts here to extend this analysis to violence, but unfortunately he bases much of his work on speculation rather than evidence. For example, he argues that crack sales led to violence because violence is an integral part of illegal drug markets. This does nothing to explain why violence lessened when youth switched over to buying and selling illegal marijuana. The analysis places a higher priority on mathematical elegance than on knowledge of the subject matter. For example, much emphasis is placed on the fact that X amount of intoxication can be had from Y amount of cocaine, but for Y amount of crack one can deliver 2X worth of intoxication. Therefore, profits are higher, more people enter the market to sell crack, and therefore there is a corresponding increase in violence. Very interesting, but what happens to this elegance if profits are not higher, as argued by almost everyone who has done ethnography with crack dealers? There are many reasons suggested in this book and others on why youth began carrying weapons less in the 1990s, but it is perhaps unique here to suggest that the reason is that
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carrying a weapon became a cost of doing business, and fewer youngsters could afford to purchase a Saturday Night Special. Grogger argues that young black men were the ones most killed in the 1980s because the low wages paid to young minority men made them the most likely people in the country to sell drugs. Not only does this suffer from a lack of a gendered analysis, but also it leaves out the fact that white people are buying an enormous amount of drugs in the U. S. from dealers who are not young, black males. True, crack was mostly bought and sold by blacks, but that requires a stronger analysis.
Overall, there is a wealth of information, charts, data, and arguments to make the book well worth purchasing even for those who might not agree with the authors.
Karmen, Andrew. 2000 NEW YORK MURDER MYSTERY: THE TRUE STORY BEHIND THE CRIME CRASH OF THE 1990S. New York: New York University Press.
Ludlum, Robert. 2000. THE PROMETHEUS DECEPTION. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Copyright 2001 by the author, Martin D. Schwartz.