• U.S.

Crime: Lock ‘Em Up!And Throw Away the Key

9 minute read
Richard Lacayo

“WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT these kids (monsters) who kill with guns??? Line them up against the wall and get a firing squad and pull, pull, pull. I am volunteering to pull, pull, pull.”

That’s not a rap lyric. It’s from an anonymous letter to a judge in Dade County, Florida — part of the shared unconscious talking. And suddenly we’re all ears. In one of the most startling spikes in the history of polling, large numbers of Americans are abruptly calling crime their greatest concern. Confronted by clear evidence of a big issue, politicians everywhere, including the one in the White House, are reaching for their loudest guns: prisons, boot camps, mandatory sentences. Months before the start of baseball season, the air is full of shouts of “Three strikes and you’re out.”

Why are so many people suddenly preoccupied with crime? For one thing, anxiety hates a vacuum. With worries about the cold war and the economy evaporating, the fear of crime has reared up in their place. For another, every few weeks the headlines resupply our worst imaginings. Randomly, irrationally, crime pounds at the door of a slumber party. It pulls up beside a tourist at a highway rest stop. It catches the 5:33.

What cannot be used to account for the sudden uproar is any commensurate increase in crime generally. The FBI figures for the first six months of 1993, the latest available, show violent crime down 3%. Crime overall was down 4%. But the national psyche doesn’t make seasonal adjustments. Whatever the latest backlash owes to hype and hysteria, it is also a response to a festering problem. Most crime is down or leveling out, but only when compared with the high plateau it reached in the late ’70s. It’s hard to take comfort from the news that the murder rate, though lower than three years ago, is twice what it was three decades ago. And over the past 10 years the incidence of violent crime generally has risen more than 23%.

Because much of that increase reflects the daily shooting spree in the nation’s inner cities, the fear of crime also cuts across class and racial lines. Republican whip Newt Gingrich may find a receptive audience when he talks about wanting to build stockades on military bases to house prisoners, but so does Jesse Jackson when he urges African Americans to examine the cost $ of black-on-black violence. One day after a group of teenage boys sprayed bullets down the halls of Dunbar High School, in a mostly black neighborhood of Washington, visiting Vice President Al Gore was confronted by student Alenia Fowlkes. “What are you going to do?” she asked bluntly. “And when are you going to do it?”

But does Gore, or anyone, know what to do? Crime control is complicated, expensive and frustrating. When people want action now, it doesn’t help much to tell them the “root causes” are even more intractable problems like joblessness, family disintegration or drugs. But the solution they are most inclined to reach for, more prisons, has a dismal record when it comes to reducing crime. (See following story.) So Congress and the states grope for the mixture of punishment and incentive that will take the pressure off for a while.

Gore replied to Alenia Fowlkes’ question about action by pointing to the omnibus crime bill in Congress. Next month a joint congressional committee will try to reconcile bills passed separately by the House and Senate last year, an amalgam of potentially helpful measures and predictable grandstanding. Both include money to help states pay for more police officers — 50,000 more in the House version, twice that in the Senate’s. The Senate calls for the construction of 10 federal prisons and designates the death penalty for 52 more crimes, many of them the marginal ones that federal law tends to cover. Kill somebody on an oil-drilling platform, and you’re in big trouble.

The Senate bill includes two versions of a three-strikes-you’re-out measure, which would establish a mandatory life sentence for a third serious felony. At least 30 states are examining the same idea, backed by Governors as disparate as Republican Pete Wilson of California and Democrat Mario Cuomo of New York. The number of felons convicted a third time is relatively small. Only about 70 each year are expected to be covered in the State of Washington, where the first such law just went into effect. For New York, the estimate is 300 criminals a year.

And what would be the impact on crime? Not much. Most felons are not convicted a third time until late in their crime career, which is at its peak between the ages of 15 and 23. Three-time losers will see out their retirement years in taxpayer-supported lodgings, taking up the very space that jumpier characters ought to occupy.

But chances for passage are good in most places. When told it will cost + $460,000 to keep a prisoner behind bars from age 50 to 70, an aide to Texas Senator Phil Gramm said, “This is what the public wants.” In the view of one potential three-timer, it might even have some effect. Randy Berg, 33, a crack addict who is serving a seven-year sentence in Minnesota for his second violent assault, says, “I know that if this goes through there is no chance . . .” His voice trails off — then he adds, “If I was on the streets and had my rights, I would vote for this law.”

BUT THERE IS ANOTHER THING that worries Berg. “People can just get caught up in things, you know, or be framed or set up for a third violation. Where do you draw the line then?” That also worries judges, who generally dislike mandatory sentences of any kind. They tend to prefer laws that leave to them the discretion to lengthen the sentences of the repeat felons.

In the view of police, prosecutors, judges and many academics, trying to control crime through tougher sentences is a doomed effort because the law- enforcement system can never be made large enough to solve the problem. Just a fraction of all criminals pass through it. By some estimates, roughly a fifth of all crimes result in an arrest, only about half of those lead to a conviction in serious cases, and less than 5% of those bring a jail term. Even that number leaves prisons so overcrowded that the average convict serves just a third of his time. And while prison has the advantage of taking criminals off the streets for a while — no small virtue — it does little to stop new ones from coming up through the ranks.

Which is one reason that for most states the greatest challenge is the morass of juvenile justice. Close to a fifth of all violent crime is committed by kids younger than 18. While nearly all states are moving to try more juvenile offenders as adults, 30 states and the Federal Government are also experimenting with boot camps in which juvenile offenders are subjected to a military-style “shock incarceration” program of three to six months. Offered to first-term nonviolent offenders as an alternative to jail, the programs feature military drills and hard labor. Some also include substance-abuse treatment and training that ranges from how to take a shower to how to persuade a prospective employer to hire you despite your prison record.

THOUGH THEY TEND TO COST LESS than long prison terms, boot camps haven’t had much impact on recidivism. “We’re not finding any significant difference from similar offenders who are put on probation or who serve their time,” says Doris MacKenzie, a University of Maryland researcher who has studied eight programs. As many as 60% of the graduates are arrested within a year of returning to their old haunts.

Another tool for which lawmakers are reaching to control crime before it happens is teen curfews. Two dozen cities have adopted them, many in the past year. This month Florida’s attorney general will push the legislature for a statewide curfew aimed at everyone younger than 18. The city of Tampa got a jump on that last week when it opted for an 11 p.m. curfew for youths 16 or younger, with an extension to midnight on weekends. It is the parents who get punished — with a warning, the first time their kids are caught. For subsequent offenses, the penalties can consist of a $1,000 fine, six months in jail or 50 hours of community service.

Some of the people calling most loudly for the curfews are African Americans, who are more likely to know what it means to live on a block made unlivable by crime. “For those who are worried about the constitutionality of the curfew, I’ll gladly hire some buses and transfer the kids who are on our streets after 11 p.m. to their neighborhoods,” says T. Willard Fair, president of Miami’s Urban League.

But curfews do elicit complaints from libertarians that they go too far in punishing the innocent majority to get at the troublesome few. Curfews in Phoenix and Miami’s Dade County are under challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. “People will gladly trade freedom for law and order,” says Charles Colson, former White House counsel to Richard Nixon, who has been devoted to prison reform since he did time for his involvement in Watergate. “My worry is that the failure of current policies will increase public frustration to the point that people will go for the strong-arm answer.”

That fear also pervades the African-American community, which despite its concern about crime is resistant to the crime bill. In the view of the influential Congressional Black Caucus, the Senate version of the legislation stresses prison and mandatory minimum sentences too much over social programs — an imbalance that affects blacks disproportionately. “I went to Jesse Jackson’s conference about black-on-black violence, and everybody there was against the crime bill,” says an Administration source. “Their vehemence surprised me.”

The White House has moved to assuage such sentiments even as the President shakes a fist at criminals. TIME has learned that Clinton directed his Cabinet quietly to put together a $1 billion to $2 billion job-training initiative as part of the $22 billion bill.

Because more than two-thirds of the states have laws requiring them to maintain a balanced budget, some of the more costly state proposals will come crashing to the ground in short order. But a slew of tougher prison sentences are likely to be adopted, taking the heat off legislators — until it becomes apparent that they haven’t worked and the next upsurge of anger comes along.

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