Law & the Courts

Criminals Are Unicorns

And that’s why it is so difficult to stop them.

Ed was a great big bruiser, which made his job — working as a bouncer on Austin’s Sixth Street when he wasn’t in classes at the University of Texas — fairly easy. Ed’s imposing profile, combined with the generally pacifistic nature of Austin Man even after a few too many Shiners, ensured that he very rarely had to do any real violence. But a curious thing happened when he did have to get physical with a patron: He’d take care of things quickly and generally without too much trouble, but afterward he would shake, grow anxious, and have trouble sleeping. It wasn’t that he was in any danger himself, but that violence was for him traumatic.

If you’ve ever been involved in martial arts or boxing, or even a relatively violent sport such as football, you’ve probably noticed a curious related phenomenon: Even among the self-selecting groups of people (overwhelmingly young men) who choose such violent recreations, there persists some hesitation about violence per se. Beyond the cultivation of physical prowess and technical skill, what’s really difficult about training young men in these areas is overcoming the deeply ingrained disinclination to hit someone in the face. A krav maga instructor of my acquaintance forbids the use of the words “I’m sorry” in his facility — if you accidentally punch someone in the nose during a training exercise, you can stop to make sure that they are uninjured, but such risks are part of the deal. The rare odd men born liberated from such inhibitions often become great athletes and disastrous human beings. Mike Tyson the great boxer and Mike Tyson the awful man are a package deal.

The natural disinclination to violence is the reason that so much military training, especially in elite units, is accompanied by emotional stress and psychological degradation: One must interrupt the ordinary mental equilibrium of emotionally normal and high-achieving men to train them to do the things that military men must do. There is probably a good evolutionary reason for this: We are great apes closely related to the relatively antisocial, nonconfrontational orangutan — but even more closely related to the intensely social and often horrifyingly violent chimpanzee. The H sap. model of highly cooperative primate society requires both focused violence and a general brake on violence.

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This is a long but necessary way of getting around to the question of criminal demographics and their relationship with crime policy. We know a little about who commits what kinds of crime. The evidence of experience has been overwhelming on some questions: So ingrained is the belief that violent crime, especially violent crime in nondomestic settings victimizing strangers (such as muggings and armed robberies — the kind of crime we worry most about), is almost exclusively the work of young men that the question went for many years without being seriously studied. When the criminologist Marvin Wolfgang set about formally considering that question in his groundbreaking study “Delinquency in a Birth Cohort in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1945–1963,” it seemed a foregone conclusion that what he called (in language that now sounds to us a little quaint) “delinquency” was to be a young-male phenomenon. He documented the pattern, now taken for granted, of criminality increasing in late childhood, increasing dramatically in adolescence, and then tapering off in adulthood. He began the process of formalizing the folk knowledge that the most dangerous people in any society are men under the age of 25.

The overwhelming majority of serious violent crimes are committed by a tiny number of habitual offenders.

He also identified a pattern that has profoundly influenced criminal-justice policy ever since: The overwhelming majority of serious violent crimes are committed by a tiny number of habitual offenders. More than one-third of the Philadelphians born in 1945 Wolfgang studied had at least one run-in with police before reaching legal adulthood, but of the total offenses committed by that cohort, half were the work of a tiny number of repeat criminals. More than three-quarters of the crimes Wolfgang classified as serious were committed by that same small group. Criminals are a minority, and studies after Wolfgang have estimated that his “habitual offenders” constitute a tiny minority — about 2 percent — within that already small minority. Wolfgang spoke of the failure to find a “cure” for habitual criminals, and the main response of governments at all levels was to enact repeat-offender laws, culminating in so-called three-strikes sentencing rules.

That’s classic political thinking: incurably retrospective. As that great philosopher of criminal justice, Wynn Duffy, once put it, “The police are just a janitorial service used to clean up your blood after you’ve been murdered.” That someone may be sent away for life after his third serious criminal conviction is no comfort to his third victim — or, given the ratio of actual crimes to arrests, his 102nd victim.

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There has been rather less in the way of prospective measures, but the very different reception given to the two main ones — gun-control proposals and aggressive, Rudy Giuliani–style police practices such as “stop and frisk” — illustrate dramatically how unserious our so-called progressives are when it comes to crime.

The gun-control policies favored by Democratic politicians and left-wing advocacy groups do almost nothing to address crime, because they are not intended to. Here the economist Tyler Cowen’s bleak take on politics — that the goal is not solving social problems but lowering or raising the status of certain social groups — is particularly relevant. The Left is primarily urban, dominated by academics and intellectuals, and culturally rooted in coastal cosmopolitanism, and, as such, it is composed of people who view with varying degrees of confusion and detestation American’s gun culture, which is rooted in rural life, particularly in hunting and in agriculture, and which is associated with a political culture that resents and resists domination and direction by coastal elites.

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The main effect of our heavy regulation of firearms is to harass, inconvenience, and humiliate licensed firearms dealers and those who do business with them. That is fine by the Left, and it is fine by law-enforcement bureaucrats who enforce firearms regulations: A federally licensed gun dealership has a fixed address, regular hours of operation, and tons of paperwork, which makes policing it a heck of a lot easier than chasing some fleet-footed 16-year-old criminal through a neighborhood he grew up in and you didn’t. Thus we have the paradox of very strict enforcement of gun laws against the generally law-abiding while federal prosecutors (and locals, too) responsible for places such as South Chicago will rarely prosecute a straw-buyer case and lock up someone who is actually enabling violent street crime.

This occasions a familiar kind of progressive goalpost-moving: There is no evidence that gun-control laws contribute meaningfully to the reduction of violent street crime. (It matters whether you study “gun deaths” or gun-related homicides and assaults, because the large majority of gun deaths in the United States are suicides.) Our contemporary progressives like to posture as nonideological pragmatists who simply consider the evidence and pursue “what works,” right until the moment the evidence fails to support them, at which point doing what Democrats desire becomes a moral question instead of an empirical one. Once the evidence has been exhausted, we get: “It’s for the children,” “It is a moral imperative,” “If it saves one life,” etc.

Unless the question is stop-and-frisk.

#share#The case against stop-and-frisk in New York City was a moral-imperative argument dressed up as a question of evidence: Those protesting the practice pointed out, accurately, that most of the people targeted by stop-and-frisk investigations in New York are black and Latino. That is a funny objection to make, inasmuch as most New Yorkers are black or Latino. (“I can put you in Queens on the night of the hijacking.” “Really? I live in Queens.”) The argument is that stop-and-frisk is racist. It is true that under the practice, blacks and Latinos were stopped, questioned, and (if it seemed warranted) frisked at higher rates than one would expect if the practice had been applied randomly to the population of New York, but — this relevant aspect is seldom discussed — it wasn’t applied randomly at all. Rather, stop-and-frisk was applied in high-crime areas (which in New York tend to be disproportionately black and Latino) and in response to witness statements originating in those areas, which also, to no one’s surprise, described disproportionately black and Latino suspects.

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One underappreciated aspect of stop-and-frisk is that it is a gun-control measure — the right kind of gun-control measure. Unlike those in Chicago, New York authorities prosecute gun cases aggressively: Get caught carrying a gun illegally in New York and you will go to jail for two years. Part of the intention behind stop-and-frisk was raising the price of carrying a gun illegally in New York. And while it would be a gross oversimplification to credit a single policy innovation with New York City’s dramatic reduction in crime (and especially in violent street crime), stop-and-frisk was part of an aggressive set of police practices that does seem to constitute “what works,” as our progressive friends like to put it. Heather Mac Donald, among others, makes a persuasive case that the practice was an important factor in reducing the city’s once out-of-control crime. And while it is true that it is difficult to establish a strong statistical correlation between the number of people stopped and frisked and the crime rate, that isn’t all that surprising, given what we know about the demographics of habitual violent criminals, i.e., that they are statistical outliers. A stop-and-frisk initiative that includes 1,000 stops may very likely net just as many violent career criminals as one that includes 2,500 stops. That’s the nature of statistical outliers.

Knowing what we actually know about crime and criminals, the evidence supports the very policies to which progressives object.

That’s why stop-and-frisk is treated as a moral question rather than as a question of evidence. For comparison, consider this ACLU argument against “three strikes” laws. The ACLU argues that three-strikes laws “won’t prevent most violent crimes,” which is true, inasmuch as most violent crimes are not committed by people with three felony convictions. But they would prevent some violent crimes, to be sure: Whatever happened to “If it saves one life,” which is taken as a perfectly good rationale for limiting constitutional gun-ownership rights? The ACLU argues that such laws would “clog the courts,” reduce judicial discretion, and potentially cost a great deal of money. Perhaps, but in what other context do you hear progressives arguing that we cannot provide some necessary public good — which law-enforcement certainly is — because it costs too much, or because it might put some strain on public agencies? The ACLU argues that three-strikes laws might ensnare people who have committed crimes that are in reality only minor — which also is true of background checks performed during gun sales, which can prevent totally innocent people (for instance, those under temporary, pre-hearing restraining orders who have in reality committed no wrongdoing) from exercising their ordinary legal rights.

That’s classic intellectual dishonesty: No, aggressive sentencing rules would not prevent most violent crime and they come with a cost; but in other policy areas, such as health care or education, providing marginal benefits at manageable costs is considered by these same people a case for certain programs. (In the case of Head Start, providing no measureable benefits at very high costs is regarded as acceptable because — inevitable words — “it’s for the children.”) This is an old rhetorical strategy: “The actual program you support is less desirable than the hypothetical ideal program I prefer, and if I should prevail and get what I want, then it is unfair and unrealistic to compare the reality of my preferred policy to some hypothetical ideal.” That’s been the entire Obamacare debate in short.

#related#It is very difficult to take proactive steps against serious violent crime. For one thing, as the ACLU and other critics of three-strikes point out, much of that crime is committed without premeditation, and a great deal of it is domestic. Second, as argued above, dedicated career criminals of the sort who committed the overwhelming majority of crimes such as mugging and armed robbery are in reality rare, felonious needles in a haystack of relatively low-order criminality. But those criminals do us the important favor of engaging in a little bit of advertising: In New York, practically all murders are committed by people with prior police records: More than 90 percent of the city’s killers have records. (So do half of the victims.) Knowing what we actually know about crime and criminals, the evidence supports the very policies to which progressives object: aggressive interdiction, particularly of people illegally carrying firearms, and stiff sentences for repeat offenders. There isn’t another policy takeaway from the evidence at hand.

But this isn’t about evidence, and it isn’t about policy. And no matter how much the chart-fetishists over at Vox insist otherwise, it seldom if ever is.


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