Swift and Certain
November 1, 2013 8:59 PM   Subscribe

Smart on Crime
I argue that (blue-collar) crime—theft and assault, in all their varieties—is still a real and major problem; that its economic and social costs are vastly under-appreciated; that its primary victims are disadvantaged minorities and poor people; that the current criminal-justice system wrongs them by under-enforcing the law against those who victimize them (who are, of course, mostly people like them in racial and class terms); that better criminal-justice policy could give us less crime and less incarceration; and that better and more equal law enforcement ought therefore to be as central a progressive political goal as better and more equal education or health care.

Mapping (and Potentially Preventing) Crime With Math
Public Ignorance About Crime Rates
Fighting Neighborhood Crime, Nonviolently
The collective started to go to the meetings in neighbors’ living rooms where people would tell alarming stories and shake their heads. Our members would get acquainted and show it was our problem, too. When the conversation turned to the demand for more police, as it always did, our members asked what the track record was. “What have the police done for you lately?”
posted by the man of twists and turns (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
While people still seem to overestimate local crime rates, they overestimate nationwide crime much more.

That is likely because people have reasons to become knowledgeable about local crime that go beyond casting better-informed votes in elections.

This seems like the (useful) emphasis on incentives taken too far. Information about local crime rates is also much easier to acquire and harder to maintain false beliefs about, no matter what your incentives are.
posted by escabeche at 9:15 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The hand washes the hand -- we must have scapegoats, agreed upon vessels of evil we can torment and degrade while we look away, look away all the while.
posted by y2karl at 12:02 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

None of this is straightforward. But all of it is essential. New York City’s massive and aggressive police force has succeeded in reducing not only crime but incarceration. We need to learn how to do so at smaller costs in civil liberty and (given fiscal realities in cities without Wall Street) money. But that project will not be helped much by people whose response to “police” on a word-association test is “misconduct” or “brutality.”

It would seem that the author's calls for quick and certain, but less severe, punishment amount to giving police the responsibilty to administer what Curtis Sliwa refers to as "wooden shampoos." This seems, despite what the science might say, like a dead-end discussion hardly worth having.
posted by three blind mice at 12:32 AM on November 2, 2013

Pessimism bias abounds. Even in more enlightened places like MF, well beyond issues such as crime. To the point that I'm still surprised when it comes up. I've wondered how deep a part of human nature it is, this kind of perverse comfort to view the world as going all to hell even when indications clearly show otherwise.

Not only is it perverse, it leads to counter productive policy constantly striving to erase progress that has been made.

Information about local crime rates is also much easier to acquire and harder to maintain false beliefs about, no matter what your incentives are.

I don't think it's even that sophisticated. Information from personal experience is what's easy to acquire. Average Joe knows that the only crime he might have experienced in the last ten years is when someone stole the pink flamingo off the neighbor's lawn, and concludes it's not much of a problem in the vicinity. Which in fact probably does reflect the actual crime rate. But those animals in the big city are another story. It might be similar to the tendency for people to believe the nation's school system is irreparably broken, but feel their own district is an exception. Or hate congress, but approve of their own representative.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:40 AM on November 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

The main article is excellent, although it falls a bit short in its prescription for "smarter policing." I'm not terribly impressed by ideas about R/C 'copters and police webcams. There might be more meat to approaches based on number crunching, but the article barely pauses to mention any of the possible downsides to such approaches. "Stop-and-frisk" is mentioned, but little is said about the broader privacy concerns that will inevitably accompany any data-based approach. Speaking of stop-and-frisk, "targeted" policing doesn't necessarily seem to do much to reduce the racist elements of the criminal justice system.

What it rightly highlights is the value of lead abatement. More and more research seems to support a significant role that lead has played in criminality at a social level. I was born in the early seventies, and I shudder from my memories of actual contact with lead things that were somehow permitted around children. I shake my head at a lot of the antics of today's helicopter parents, but some of that old school shit was actually negligent.
posted by Edgewise at 1:10 AM on November 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Our collective called other Movement for a New Society members to join them in an intense round of action: support for the stunned household where she lived, washing the blood off the sidewalk, communication with block captains, neighborhood-wide door-knocking, invitations to an evening memorial service at the neighborhood Methodist church.

The missing term here, not invented at the time, is collective efficacy:

Dr. Earls and his colleagues argue that the most important influence on a neighborhood's crime rate is neighbors' willingness to act, when needed, for one another's benefit, and particularly for the benefit of one another's children. And they present compelling evidence to back up their argument.

Will a group of local teenagers hanging out on the corner be allowed to intimidate passers-by, or will they be dispersed and their parents called? Will a vacant lot become a breeding ground for rats and drug dealers, or will it be transformed into a community garden?

Such decisions, Dr. Earls has shown, exert a power over a neighborhood's crime rate strong enough to overcome the far better known influences of race, income, family and individual temperament.

Related work is being done by Robert J. Sampson via the many-years-long Chicago Longitudinal Study, which observes neighborhoods over time and collects numerous meticulous statistics such as piles of garbage per block.

Edgewise, I think Kleiman was being more conceptual than prescriptive in terms of copter cams or whatever. His work hasn't really tended toward the flashy bling. In terms of number-crunching, though, there have been good results from e.g. gang intervention letters where the cops focus on a handful of individuals with poor risk factors for future violence, and find ways to reconnect them to the community rather than relying on the alternative community of the gang -- getting them into a vocational program, for example.
posted by dhartung at 1:22 AM on November 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Amazing how ready so many people are to trade liberty for security.
posted by spitbull at 2:58 AM on November 2, 2013

So how does this jibe with the whole "law enforcement is disproportionately enforced on poor people of color" argument?

By saying this type of crime effects poor people more frequently and has more severe effects(which i agree with, fwiw) and that it needs greater enforcement in this area, isn't this essentially SUPPORTING what lefty leaning folk have all agreed is extremely racist policing by going "the poors, that's where the problems are, just bomb the shit out of those areas with cops!" which ends up being "go in to the neighborhoods with brown people and stomp out crime!" just feeding more people in to the meat grinder of the criminal justice system? School to prison pipeline and whatnot?

I realize he had some half measure "well the penalties should be less severe" stuff in there, but the comments about the NYC police force doing a Great Job are disturbing. Are they even based in fact? I mean i've seen an awful lot of links like this coasting through my daily newsfeed all the damn time.

It would seem that the author's calls for quick and certain, but less severe, punishment amount to giving police the responsibilty to administer what Curtis Sliwa refers to as "wooden shampoos." This seems, despite what the science might say, like a dead-end discussion hardly worth having.

Indeed, i almost thought this was a modest proposal of sorts since it made my eyebrow pop up so damn high. In concert with the rest of what i inferred from it, it's just... what?

It reminds me of that scene in six feed under when Claire's ex goes "when you remove humans from nature, all you're left with is human nature" and she goes "Ok, that sounds really good, but what the fuck does it mean?". It's a lot of "things could be more fair" cock fluffing that not only fails to provide a good solution, but starts to meander down a fairly disturbing path with it's train of thought.

I'll revisit this in the morning after a cuppa tea and really read the whole damn thing. But i'm a bit upset with even the premise of it what with the way the authors approaching it all, and especially that specific bit about the NY cops doing a Great Job Folks!. It seems that he wants the cops to work fucking like... more like they do in boardwalk empire or something.

Just what?
posted by emptythought at 4:26 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

In fact, the 500,000 people behind bars at any one time for drug-law violations constitute only about 20 percent of those locked up. That’s still a shockingly large number of people—the United States has a higher rate of incarceration for drug-law violations alone than any Western European country has for all offenses combined—but “ending the drug war” would not put much of a dent in the mass-incarceration problem, even if we assume no additional crime due to additional drug abuse. (Alcohol, our one licit addictive intoxicant, is involved in something like half of all violent crime.)

1) Ending the drug war would, as per his numbers, reduce incarceration by 20%, which is a pretty damned good start
2) Betcha if we didn't have the Second Amendment, many of those alcohol-involved crimes would disappear
3) This ignores the possibility that while the offense that landed a person in jail may not be drug-related, if they have an existing criminal records, including records related to drug-offense, that prior record may land them in jail because they will be facing more severe penalties because it is not their first offense.

In short, this is good writing an all, but it feels like a big bunch of over thinking, or maybe it's an acceptance that the ideological ties to criminalizing drugs and keeping our guns.

Although I will admit to being really upset that some kids Trick or Treating last year in my neighborhood were robbed of their candy. At gunpoint.
posted by angrycat at 4:38 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Very thoughtful and provocative article, tmomtat. It integrated a lot of information, some well known, some fresh to me, and its prescriptions were helpful, though vague. Some of the vagueness was accompanied by exhortations to learn more, such as just how to fit the punishment to the crime. I agree with this thought, and I believe that the only way to do that reliably is some sort of randomized trial. Since the idea of randomization is foreign to the body politic, such a trial would have to be disguised as a lottery, which people love. School voucher programs would be first on my list. I am waiting for a politician to start advocating studying of public policy through the ubiquitous application of lotteries with careful record keeping to determine which policy is best. In cases where there is dependence between community members, group-randomized trials can be applied, where the "lottery" is among communities instead of individuals.

Although from my perspective more of the conservative ideologically driven policies than those liberal-based ones are based on faulty understanding of causality, I would like to see all policy recommendations subjected to this form of rigor so we can find out what actually improves things and end ideological bickering, at least among thoughtful folks, who I still believe make up the majority in this country.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:16 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't say I disagree, in general, with the points made in the essay. But, for some reason, a lot of it still doesn't sit right with me.

For instance, I think it's a huge mistake to differentiate between blue-collar and white-collar crime. They are interdependent, no? White-collar crime on the level we've become accustomed to can do nothing but increase blue-collar crime and (at least, monetarily) decrease our options to deal with it. Also, I think it's unrealistic to not acknowledge that that doesn't factor into the blue-collar criminals' justifications of their own acts.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:26 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There was an issue of Criminology and Public Policy that did a similar discussion in more depth if anyone is interested. The main article was by Durlauf and Nagin, who argued that putting more police in high crime areas would increase the perceived certainty of apprehension, which is generally more effective in preventing criminal behavior than increasing the severity of punishment. They were mostly thinking in terms of hotspots policing and other geographically focused crime prevention strategies rather than putting up a lot of cameras. Ten or so other people responded and talked about the pros and cons of that type of policy.

Frankly, the ideas that the main article has about increasing the amount of surveillance technology are not supported by the evidence. For instance, CCTV doesn't work in all settings and seems most effective when it is directly monitored by someone, which takes a lot of time and money. So it isn't even clear that the trade is security v. liberty, just liberty v. dubious benefit.

Also, one of the issues with the crime drop in New York is it actually started before the police reforms like COMPSTAT and broken windows policing were implemented, so it's hard to attribute the decline in crime directly to the activity of the police at the time. And crime fell in many other cities that didn't implement NYPD's policies, which further muddies the waters.
posted by _cave at 8:11 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would add a new demand-side approach to the toolkit of smart policing (cameras, gps tracking, lead abatement, etc). Why not take high risk unemployable offenders and entice them to join a New Deal CCC program, where they earn diplomas, learn trades, maintain public lands, travel around and solve labor shortages in emergencies, etc. In small groups they can also act as support structures. If we can predict with some accuracy that someone will commit a crime at some point, or be swept into a gang, then we might as well preempt it with a low cost oversight program that produces something. Enlistees will eventually move on when their brains mature and they feel they can live on their own, thanks to skills and relationships they acquired before they gravitated into gang mode.
posted by Brian B. at 12:31 PM on November 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

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