Politics & Policy

The Criminologists Have It Wrong


There’s something that most people don’t understand about criminologists. Criminologists don’t like jails. Criminologists, like many people in the social sciences who end their job title in “-gist,” like explanations and theories and interventions and all the other things that not only make being a criminologist interesting but possible. Nobody is ever surprised to find out that the fashion industry spends most of its energy trying to come up with reasons for you to think all of your current clothes are unwearable. But for some reason we have a hard time thinking that way about “scientists.” The truth is they are constantly coming up with very grandiose explanations for very simple phenomena.

Witness the latest idea to traipse its way down the runway: “The Tipping Point.” This is a variation on a theme of late 20th century criminology. The New York Times’s Fox Butterfield has spent a few years writing articles which say, in effect, “Crime Rate Continues to Fall, Despite Increase in Incarceration.”

The tipping point turns it up a notch. The headline of today’s Washington Post shouts, “High Imprisonment Could Fuel Crime.” The theory is that incarceration can be a deterrent until a certain critical mass of people (read men) are in jail. At that tipping point, the community starts to fall apart, where “so many people in a given neighborhood are going to prison that it begins to destabilize the community and becomes a factor in decreasing crime.”

This conclusion was based on a study of several neighborhoods around Tallahassee, Florida. One town, Frenchtown, has experienced a drop in the crime rate, much as the rest of Florida and the country have, but Frenchtown’s drop wasn’t as dramatic as other towns. The researchers found that the most striking difference between Frenchtown and the others was that Frenchtown had a higher rate of incarceration of its residents. Hence the “tipping point” thesis emerges. Because so many of the Frenchtown men are in the pokey, young men don’t have a good role model or mentor to teach them the straight and narrow.

Now the article and the study are arsenals in the campaign for alternative sentencing and the rest and I do not want to sound like I’m completely against alternative, or creative, sentencing of criminals.


They are criminals. Indeed, there was a time when people might say that men who have been arrested, tried, and convicted to jail time are extremely likely to be criminals, in much the same way that men who have spent their lives in and out AA programs and received medical treatment for cirrhosis are quite likely to be alcoholics. I mean, I don’t want to buy into stereotypes or anything, but people convicted of crimes are, well, criminals. Sure there are exceptions — Richard Kimble and the one-armed man and all — but that is not what the researchers at the Post are talking about. They’re talking about real criminals like Mumia Abu Jamal (sorry, gratuitous pot shots at convicted murderers are allowed in these pages).

“Areas that have low crime rates are that way because people who live there do the job of providing social control,” one of the researchers explains. Yes, yes, that’s true. But this is all a very fancy way of saying, “Areas that have low crime rates are that way because people who live there don’t commit crimes.” The fact that Frenchtown still has comparatively higher crime rates could have more to do with the fact that there are still more criminals left who belong in prison. Admittedly this would deplete the ranks of “male role models” even further.

“His biological father is incarcerated. His stepfather is incarcerated,” Laura Anderson of Frenchtown tells the Post’s Michael Fletcher. “If somebody doesn’t come along as a mentor or something and show him a different way, he is going to think that jail is the place where he will ultimately be too.”

My heart goes out to Ms. Anderson. But maybe if she stopped marrying criminals she’d have fewer problems. The researchers think that if these criminals were home “mentoring” their kids, the youth of the community would be less inclined to break the law. Oookkkkaaayyy… Under this scheme, do you think these men would be less or more likely to teach that “crime doesn’t pay” if they were never sent to prison for committing crimes?

There are parts of the African-American community that are being devastated by the fact that too many young men are criminals. Not because too many of them are being caught.


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