America’s crime-victimization rates, falling for ten years now, hit another record low last year, according to a new study. Crime fell just about everywhere in the country: suburbs and cities, small and large towns. Old, young, rich, poor, black, and white: Americans of all sorts became safer. Reading the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s 2002 National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) page-by-page, it’s hard to find even a hint of bad news. In all, BJS says, Americans fell victim to about four million fewer crimes in 2002 than in 2001. Not a single meaningful statistic moved in the wrong direction. The declines in crime over the last decade are so sharp that there’s little doubt that America has become vastly safer: Total victimizations per household have fallen 54 percent since 1993. The U.S. is safer but, ironically, the very things that are creating this safety may open the country up to even worse threats in the future.
Two things make the America’s criminal-justice system unique in the developed world: Police operate in a decentralized fashion, and criminals serve very long sentences. Rather than responding to distant bureaucrats at a national or regional government, American police must answer to city councils, mayors, and voters. A city that fails to police itself adequately will simply not retain its population, since Americans can easily pick up (without switching jobs) and find a place with a public-safety record they like better. American thugs, likewise, get what they deserve. French robbers, on average, serve about eleven months behind bars. Americans, on the other hand, do five years. Combined with a variety of other factors — including favorable demographic trends in the mid-1990s, better efforts to design buildings to keep out crime and, perhaps, widespread gun ownership — the United States is, by most measures, the safest large, developed country. Murder rates remain reasonably high in comparison with other countries, but they are at their lowest level in nearly 30 years even as they soar elsewhere in the developed world. Both decentralization and long prison sentences, however, may cause severe problems down the road.
To begin with, America’s highly decentralized police system seems uniquely ill suited to fight the terrorists who seek to destroy Western civilization. Local police agencies, justifiably, focus on driving crime out of town but have a dim view of the national situation. When it comes to fighting crime, this “hyper-local” approach works well. As Edward Banfield observed, criminally inclined people have short-term vision. If police make it difficult or impossible for them to commit crimes near home, they will find other ways to gratify their needs. Indeed, John Eck’s landmark work has shown that crime falls every time police manage to shift geographic focus. For ideologically driven terrorists, simply shifting their base of operations won’t work: A terrorist operative told to live in the United States as a means of preparing for an operation several years down the road will likely have the resources and wherewithal to avoid the police altogether. Truly national police forces, on the other hand, can keep tabs on large criminal syndicates like terrorist organizations much better than America’s patchwork of 16,500 local police agencies. Better federal intelligence gathering, improved efforts to share intelligence with local police, and a national commitment to interagency cooperation can overcome some disadvantages of America’s police forces but none will likely prove effective against terror as the regional and national police agencies common in the rest of the developed world.
Long prison sentences certainly keep away the thugs who threaten the social order but, in time, they may prove very costly. In her excellent new book, When Prisoners Come Home, University of California-Irvine professor Joan Petersilia outlines the utter failure of the United States to integrate convicts back into society. The solution isn’t the sort of criminal coddling that many left-wingers prefer (it simply doesn’t work) but, rather, a hard-nosed insistence that prisoners quit doing drugs, abstain from violence behind bars, and, through a restoration of traditional parole, actually have some incentive to improve themselves. With so many people going to prison, it is imperative that we do something to make sure that punishment is effective. Many Americans, however, favor a throwaway-the-key mentality that makes the very real horrors of prison rape a suitable topic for light comedy. Even infamous prisoners who guards should make special efforts to protect often meet untimely ends; John J. Geoghan, Boston’s pedophile priest, was brutally murdered in prison this past weekend. While he was certainly a wicked person, he did not deserve his fate.
At least when it comes to prison reform there are some signs of real progress: Congress has passed a bill to reduce prison rape and efforts to test prisoners for drugs have become more common in recent years. Still, since over 95 percent of those sent to prison will eventually come back out, doing something to make sure that they don’t come out worse is crucial if crime rates are to remain low. So far, however, few politicians or ordinary citizens display much sympathy for the idea of a comprehensive prison-reform movement.
America has become safer than other industrialized nations because of a unique criminal-justice system. Few Americans would like to see the sources of this uniqueness vanish. But both decentralized policing and long prison sentences will make things more difficult as Americans continue their struggles against crime and terror.
— Eli Lehrer is an associate editor of The American Enterprise and a homeland-security manager for a Fortune 500 company.