Ominously timed for Campaign 2008, we've got a hike in certain stats for violent crime. So we can look forward to commitments to being tough on crime, particularly from Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and ' it's safe to assume ' Hillary Clinton.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement think tank, has just put out a report stridently titled 'Violent Crime in America: 24 Months of Alarming Trends.' This follows the alarums of the group's October 2006 bulletin, which featured LAPD police chief and board member William Bratton predicting 'a gathering storm' of violent crimes.
Of the 56 police departments voluntarily sending 2006 figures to the forum, 40 reported increases in homicide and robbery. The group says that between 2004 and 2006, homicide increased 10.2%, robbery 12.3%, aggravated assault 3.1% and aggravated assault with a firearm 10%.
Of course crime stats are only exceeded in flim-flammery by economic forecasts. Astrology is a far more reliable analytic tool, as Ron and Nancy Reagan learned under the guidance of Mistress Quigley. Entrail-reading is even better. There should be a unit of haruspices, proficient in the Etruscan art, in every government department.
The forum's fearful trumpetings would diminish sharply if its statistics addressed crime rates rather than mere numbers of crimes. The population of the United States is rising by about 1% per year. As the columnist John Lott pointed out, 'It would have been hard to argue that violent crime is increasing because while the rate did go up slightly in 2005, it had fallen every single previous year since 1991. How can [the forum] claim that violent crime is out of control when it had fallen for 13 straight years before rising by 1.3% for just one year?'
Debatable in many of its aspects, the recent crime rise started in 2004, ending a long decline during the 1990s that lasted through the turn of the millennium.
Between 1992 and 2001, the FBI's core crime stats went down 17.9%. This was largely achieved by locking up or putting on parole or probation about 3% of the population. At the end of 2005, 7 million people ' one in every 32 American adults ' were behind bars or on probation or parole. The United States had 5% of the world's people and 25% of the world's prisoners.
Elliott Currie, who teaches criminology at University of California-Irvine and wrote the excellent Crime and Punishment in America, tells my Nation colleague Wes Enzinna that in his opinion the right wing exaggerates how much crime has declined as a result of 'law and order' efforts. One major factor was the crack and gun boom, a self-limiting phenomenon that could only last so long before it largely destroyed those involved.
Currie also stresses that nothing was done to abate crime on a long-term, constructive basis. People were thrown into prison, while the root causes ' ravaged communities, abandoned and demonized youth ' were exacerbated. Any recent crime rise can be largely explained as part of a cycle. People are now getting out of prison with no services and no jobs, returning to communities that are even worse off than they were before. So many of them commit crimes again.
A year before the 2004 violent crime uptick, the Bush regime thrust the country into an illegal war contrived by lies, unleashing criminal violence in Iraq, with the Afghanistan attack as prelude. The long-term effects of wars upon crime at home have been studied in some detail. One in eight returning soldiers, the U.S. Army estimates, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these soldiers become powder kegs, prone to alcohol or drug addiction, and to violence.
On Feb. 22, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, 24, was sentenced to 100 years in prison for the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, and the killing of her family last year. (He will be eligible for parole in 10 years under the terms of his plea agreement.)
Tears, so the AP report told us, 'rolled down Cortez's face as he apologized for the rape and murders. He said he could not explain why he took part. 'I still don't have an answer,' Cortez told the judge. 'I don't know why. I wish I hadn't.'' The U.S. attack on Iraq destroyed that family and thousands more. It destroyed Cortez. There will be physical and psychic wreckage from that war in most American communities for years to come.
Will any candidate in the months to come have the moral and intellectual fortitude to shun the lock-'em-up grandstanding that has given us the American gulag? Will such a candidate connect crime abroad to crime at home?
In congressional appropriations alone the war has cost, thus far, $408 billion. In January 2006, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes reckoned the likely cost to be up to four times that total. Every dollar going to the war has been confiscated from constructive social purposes ' economic investment at home, community repair, job creation, job training, reviving stricken communities.
That's a populist theme that Sen. James Webb seized on in his response to Bush's State of the Union. Edwards sounds the same theme from time to time, too. The moment is ripe for it.