When police arrested Brian Keith Herron, of Owensboro, Kentucky Wednesday, he returned to a place he knew well: the inside of a state prison. Herron, who allegedly robbed three banks in the last month, left prison on December 18th as part of Democratic Governor Paul Patton’s lame-brained attempt to save the state money by letting some “nonviolent” property offenders out of prison early.
It’s because of people like Herron that Americans should start getting worried about crime again. Preliminary FBI statistics for 2002 show that crime will likely rise for the second consecutive year. This will mark America’s first two-year crime “losing streak” in over a decade. Even with wake-up calls from the likes of Herron, hardly anyone has noticed. Many police agencies and politicians point out, correctly, that violent crime — now at its lowest levels since 1966 — has continued to drop. Confidence in local police agencies, buoyed by 9/11, stands at an all-time high. But property crime rates continue to rise: During the first half of the year, they increased a little less than one percent.
So what’s the big deal? The real problem isn’t the increases per se but rather the total lack of concern about them. Several other states have followed Kentucky’s dubious example and released inmates early. Despite a surging population of the males 17-24 who commit about half of all crime, the numbers of people behind bars has begun to fall around the country. Prisons do nothing to break inmates of the bad habits that landed them behind bars so most of those released end up continuing to prey on the public. This needs to change.
All of this is a problem because the supposedly “minor” property crimes that many governments no longer care about create fear and destroy neighborhoods. In 1973, still the high-water mark of American crime, six out of ten American homes fell victim to property crimes. Even affluent towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lakewood, Colorado, and Santa Barbara, California saw so many house break-ins that police rarely had time to take fingerprints, much less catch the wrongdoers. Supermarkets fled the inner city as rampant shoplifting destroyed profit margins. About 90 percent of Americans will go their entire lives without falling victim to a violent crime but even in today’s relatively safe society, the average person will still fall victim to a half-dozen property crimes over a lifetime. Even in the worst neighborhoods, most people avoid falling victim to violence. Property crime, on the other hand, touches everyone.
In the past, I’ve given credence to the idea that lower crime rates have a civilizing effect. A distressed inner-city resident seriously afraid of getting murdered is unlikely to care much about losing his television while a comfortable suburbanite might dial 911 over a few rowdy kids. In cities like New York, San Diego, and Lowell, Massachusetts that have reduced crime enormously, calls to the police have remained about level because so many more people call the police. This trend continues but serious property crimes like auto theft are rising more quickly than any other crime: five- and six-percent increases all around the country can not be explained by increased reporting alone. Car theft is the domain of professional criminals increases of this magnitude are a sign of worse things to come.
To stop crime from spiraling out of control once again, America’s governments have to return to the focus that served them well during the 1990s: working with communities to catch predatory criminals and keep them locked away.
— Eli Lehrer is senior editor of The American Enterprise.