Let's talk frankly about crime in America

About six months ago, US Attorney General Eric Holder said America is a nation of cowards when discussing race. He said Americans are afraid to talk about race, adding that

"...certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."

Now, the country's top law enforcement official says there are too many people in prison. Yet, in his 3000 word speech to the American Bar Association in Chicago on Monday, Holder never said a word about the overwhelmingly large disparity that exists between the percentages of crime committed by blacks, when compared to whites.

Did the first African-American Attorney General feel too embarrassed to mention the fact that blacks, who represent about 12 percent of the population, commit about 40 percent of the crime?  

Of the 2.3 million people in prisons and jails in the United States, roughly 140,000, or 6 percent, are serving life sentences. These severe penalties are meted out because of the violent nature of the crimes. About 48 percent of lifers are black, 33 percent are white, and 14 percent are Hispanic. Some might conclude that blacks have been treated unfairly in sentencing, but a look at the statistics doesn't bear that out. Though blacks account for just one-eighth of the US population, they are seven times more likely to commit murder than whites. That hard fact, not racism, explains the high proportion of lifers who are black.

Mr. Holder says one out of every hundred Americans is in prison and that much incarceration comes with a huge social and fiscal cost, adding that it isn't even bringing down crime rates. Either the AG is being disingenuous or he is simply responding in knee-jerk fashion to a new report from the Sentencing Project, a liberal advocacy group which supports abolition of both the death penalty and life without parole, a position not shared by most Americans. The report states that the high incarceration rate is the result of "three decades of ‘tough on crime' policies that have made little impact on crime."

I beg to differ! Yes, there's no doubt that the prison population has grown during that period, but it's also true that its impact on crime has been substantial. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans experienced 44 million crimes in 1973. By 2007, that number had dropped to 23 million, even though the population grew by more than 75 million. In other words, those "tough on crime" policies reduced crime by almost half, while the country grew by about 30 percent.

A research analyst and lead author of the new report admits that it is "intuitive" to attribute the huge reduction in crime to the amount of criminals behind bars. However, she added that some researchers have determined that incarceration rates account for no more than one-fourth of the drop in crime. Even accepting lowball estimates, a quarter of half is one eighth. One out of eight crime victims spared is not chopped liver.

Some researchers have estimated that for each additional criminal locked up, there is a concomitant reduction of between five and six reported crimes. The Sentencing Project may insist that incapacitating criminals through more and longer prison sentences has made little impact on crime, but those sentences have spared countless innocent people from being assaulted, robbed, raped, and murdered. When the AG talks about the social and fiscal costs of a burgeoning incarceration rate, he should also address the number of lives that were not taken by violent criminals; the number of sexual assault victims that have been spared the physical and emotional trauma; and the number of others who have not been victimized because there are fewer predators on the street. 

The single most important job of the government is the safety of the people. It's sad that we have a higher percentage of people in prison than any other country, but sadder still would be a policy that opens the cells and makes all of us more vulnerable to attack. Holder tells us that states and localities are laying off teachers, cutting back on public health and cancelling after school programs for our children, but, in almost all cases, spending on prisons continues to rise.

Other cutbacks don't result in murders and rapes. The AG  might check out the amount of money wasted on amenities for prisoners before he complains about the cost of keeping them locked up. In addition, a no frills prison system might be the best deterrent to crime. How many recidivists would we have if prison was a place that actually frightened offenders, instead of a place that seems like old home week to many?

If Mr. Holder is unwilling to talk about the foregoing, I submit that he is the coward.

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.
About six months ago, US Attorney General Eric Holder said America is a nation of cowards when discussing race. He said Americans are afraid to talk about race, adding that

"...certain subjects are off-limits and that to explore them risks at best embarrassment and at worst the questioning of one's character."

Now, the country's top law enforcement official says there are too many people in prison. Yet, in his 3000 word speech to the American Bar Association in Chicago on Monday, Holder never said a word about the overwhelmingly large disparity that exists between the percentages of crime committed by blacks, when compared to whites.

Did the first African-American Attorney General feel too embarrassed to mention the fact that blacks, who represent about 12 percent of the population, commit about 40 percent of the crime?  

Of the 2.3 million people in prisons and jails in the United States, roughly 140,000, or 6 percent, are serving life sentences. These severe penalties are meted out because of the violent nature of the crimes. About 48 percent of lifers are black, 33 percent are white, and 14 percent are Hispanic. Some might conclude that blacks have been treated unfairly in sentencing, but a look at the statistics doesn't bear that out. Though blacks account for just one-eighth of the US population, they are seven times more likely to commit murder than whites. That hard fact, not racism, explains the high proportion of lifers who are black.

Mr. Holder says one out of every hundred Americans is in prison and that much incarceration comes with a huge social and fiscal cost, adding that it isn't even bringing down crime rates. Either the AG is being disingenuous or he is simply responding in knee-jerk fashion to a new report from the Sentencing Project, a liberal advocacy group which supports abolition of both the death penalty and life without parole, a position not shared by most Americans. The report states that the high incarceration rate is the result of "three decades of ‘tough on crime' policies that have made little impact on crime."

I beg to differ! Yes, there's no doubt that the prison population has grown during that period, but it's also true that its impact on crime has been substantial. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Americans experienced 44 million crimes in 1973. By 2007, that number had dropped to 23 million, even though the population grew by more than 75 million. In other words, those "tough on crime" policies reduced crime by almost half, while the country grew by about 30 percent.

A research analyst and lead author of the new report admits that it is "intuitive" to attribute the huge reduction in crime to the amount of criminals behind bars. However, she added that some researchers have determined that incarceration rates account for no more than one-fourth of the drop in crime. Even accepting lowball estimates, a quarter of half is one eighth. One out of eight crime victims spared is not chopped liver.

Some researchers have estimated that for each additional criminal locked up, there is a concomitant reduction of between five and six reported crimes. The Sentencing Project may insist that incapacitating criminals through more and longer prison sentences has made little impact on crime, but those sentences have spared countless innocent people from being assaulted, robbed, raped, and murdered. When the AG talks about the social and fiscal costs of a burgeoning incarceration rate, he should also address the number of lives that were not taken by violent criminals; the number of sexual assault victims that have been spared the physical and emotional trauma; and the number of others who have not been victimized because there are fewer predators on the street. 

The single most important job of the government is the safety of the people. It's sad that we have a higher percentage of people in prison than any other country, but sadder still would be a policy that opens the cells and makes all of us more vulnerable to attack. Holder tells us that states and localities are laying off teachers, cutting back on public health and cancelling after school programs for our children, but, in almost all cases, spending on prisons continues to rise.

Other cutbacks don't result in murders and rapes. The AG  might check out the amount of money wasted on amenities for prisoners before he complains about the cost of keeping them locked up. In addition, a no frills prison system might be the best deterrent to crime. How many recidivists would we have if prison was a place that actually frightened offenders, instead of a place that seems like old home week to many?

If Mr. Holder is unwilling to talk about the foregoing, I submit that he is the coward.

Bob Weir is a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police Department. He is the executive editor of The News Connection in Highland Village, Texas.  Email Bob.