The Crime Issue

"Crime is a dangerous, cancerous condition which, if not curbed and beaten down, will soon eat at the very vitals of the country."  -J. Edgar Hoover, to the University of Maryland's class of 1936 [1]

"He was carrying a twenty-one-foot tapeworm along with his business responsibilities, and that aged him."  -Rooster Cogburn, reminiscing about a deceased former employer [2]

Call it a cancer or call it a tapeworm, but one thing crime can't be called is a factor, so far, in this year's election.  Nor was it a factor in the election of 2008, nor in the one before that, nor in any presidential election since 1988 -- which happens to be the last one in which Republicans thoroughly whipped the Democrats.

The GOP strategy this year is set: play it safe.  Concentrate on jobs, ObamaCare, and the deficit; avoid distracting the voters with any social issues that might put our side at a disadvantage; and eke out a narrow victory by winning a few key battleground states.

But with the country so near the tipping point between "makers" and "takers," with the Democrats so shamelessly throwing in with the takers, and with the Obama administration so richly deserving in so many ways of a resounding repudiation -- is that "safe" strategy good enough?

Why not reach for the one social issue that, so far from putting the GOP at a disadvantage, is proven poison for Democrats?  Crime is no distraction from the nation's fiscal and economic woes; it's closely intertwined with them.  A call to arms against crime can't possibly be twisted into a supposed "Republican war on women."  And if Republicans had not been neglecting the issue these many years, their electoral fortunes -- and the peace, happiness, and prosperity of the American people -- would have been much improved.

GOP strategists might argue, however, that conditions have changed since the year Michael Dukakis's softness on crime cooked the Democrats' goose.  In 1988, crime rates had been soaring for two decades, but now, with government doing all it can to battle crime, those rates have been falling for two decades.  No Democratic presidential nominee since Dukakis has dared appear to be soft on crime, so what's the point of talking about it now?

But government is not doing all it could do against crime, and crime has not been driven down as low as it can go.   Per-capita crime rates remain almost twice what they were in 1960, the year FBI crime statistics assumed their modern form.  The only exception is murder, which has receded completely thanks to improvements in emergency trauma care.  Murderous attacks are a different story.  When the victim survives, they are called aggravated assaults, a category that remains almost three times its 1960 rate.

Furthermore, what we have been doing about crime is hugely expensive.  The incarceration rate is seven times what it was in 1960.  That reflects a lot of convicts who repaid the cost of their upbringing by becoming first a menace and then a burden to society, and a lot of tax dollars diverted from productive uses into mere containment.  Incarceration may have curbed the crime cancer, but it hasn't beaten crime down.  It hasn't extinguished the gangster culture that continues to thrive both in and out of prison.

True law and order means that people are law-abiding, not that people have been locked up.  James Q. Wilson put it this way: "One can imagine living in a society in which the shared values of the people ... would produce a citizenry less criminal than ours is now without diminishing to any significant degree the political liberties we cherish.  Indeed, we can do more than imagine it; we can recall it" [3].

Wilson was referring to the Victorian era, but his words could just as easily apply to another era liberals despise, an era many of us can still recall: the 1950s.  Those enviable 1960 statistics open a window on that bygone "Ozzie and Harriet" world.

Many of the social ills that have bedeviled us since then bear upon the economy and the deficit.  But crime bleeds the country more than any of them, and unlike other social issues, there is no ambiguity in the public's attitude toward crime and its remedies.  And that especially includes the one remedy we haven't yet deployed to its full potential.

Here's one more statistic from the '50s: murderers were more than twice as likely then than now to land on death row.  They were even more likely to face execution in the decades previous, but that still had only a small scattering of murderers ever paying for their crimes with their lives.  And one of the people who complained about that was the American icon Will Rogers.

A contemporary of Capone and Dillinger, Rogers skewered crime with comments like this: "Papers have been commenting on the novel way the state of Nevada executed a man for committing murder.  The novelty of that was that a prisoner was executed in any way for just committing murder."  And this: "Of course, the best way out of this crime wave would be to punish the criminals, but, of course, that is out of the question!  That's barbarous, and takes us back, as the hysterics say, to the days before civilization" [4].

What form of punishment is endlessly condemned by "the hysterics" as uncivilized?  Why, capital punishment, of course.  Yet, despite the liberal elite's best efforts, almost two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty.  And that margin would be even greater if more people realized, as few do, that capital punishment is a powerful deterrent when actually enforced.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry had an opportunity to drive that point home when he was challenged on the issue back during the Republican primary debates.  His failure to seize that opportunity -- the first of his campaign blunders -- indicates that even the governor of Texas is unaware of capital punishment's potential deterrent effect.

Worse, momentum on this issue is going the wrong way.  In 2007, less than a month after The New York Times reported with astonishment that "according to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives," the Democrat-led state of New Jersey abolished capital punishment.  In 2011, Democrat-led Illinois did the same, and this year, Democrat-led Connecticut followed suit.  As I wrote in 2008, these Democrats essentially told future murder victims: "Drop Dead."

How might the facts about crime, executions, and deterrence be raised at this late date?  Simple: just look at Chicago.  Murder there is skyrocketing, and, so far as I know, no one in charge has pointed to the fact that Illinois has no death penalty.  Chicagoland murders were surging also in 2008, a fact I noted in an election post-mortem.  Then as now, however, Republicans made nothing of it.

But if Mitt Romney were to decry the mayhem in Chicago, then the issue of crime and punishment could take its rightful place in this year's campaign.  Romney could contrast Chicago's distress with the relative peace in the big cities of Texas, a state with similar demographics but a relatively active execution chamber.  He could tell the story, as Perry failed to do, of how Texas became notorious as Death Row Central -- and cut its murder rate by almost two-thirds while murder in non-death penalty states fell only 21 percent [5].  "The laboratory of the states" has seldom yielded starker results.

Such a step would not only work to Romney's advantage.  It would help clear a path toward the speedy restoration of true law and order, thereby conferring an immense benefit on every innocent man, woman, and child in America.  A law-abiding culture, like a healthy lifestyle, may keep us cancer-free in future.  But first, we must remove the tumor.

Karl Spence is author of Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?  His work has appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker, and National Review.


[1] The editors of Time-Life Books, "The Hero Cop," This Fabulous Century, v. IV, pp. 108-113.

 

[2] Charles Portis, True Grit, p. 166.

[3] Wilson, "Thinking About Crime: The Debate Over Deterrence," The Atlantic Monthly, September 1983, p. 88.

[4] Bryan B. Sterling, ed., The Best of Will Rogers, pp. 89-93.  More about Rogers and his views on crime, punishment, and what makes for a law-abiding culture may be found here between Notes 8 and 12 and between Notes 25 and 27.

[5]   Rates are calculated using data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the Texas Department of Public Safety's Crime Information Bureau, and the Death Penalty Information Center.  More about the Texas experience may be found here between Notes 10 and 11.

"Crime is a dangerous, cancerous condition which, if not curbed and beaten down, will soon eat at the very vitals of the country."  -J. Edgar Hoover, to the University of Maryland's class of 1936 [1]

"He was carrying a twenty-one-foot tapeworm along with his business responsibilities, and that aged him."  -Rooster Cogburn, reminiscing about a deceased former employer [2]

Call it a cancer or call it a tapeworm, but one thing crime can't be called is a factor, so far, in this year's election.  Nor was it a factor in the election of 2008, nor in the one before that, nor in any presidential election since 1988 -- which happens to be the last one in which Republicans thoroughly whipped the Democrats.

The GOP strategy this year is set: play it safe.  Concentrate on jobs, ObamaCare, and the deficit; avoid distracting the voters with any social issues that might put our side at a disadvantage; and eke out a narrow victory by winning a few key battleground states.

But with the country so near the tipping point between "makers" and "takers," with the Democrats so shamelessly throwing in with the takers, and with the Obama administration so richly deserving in so many ways of a resounding repudiation -- is that "safe" strategy good enough?

Why not reach for the one social issue that, so far from putting the GOP at a disadvantage, is proven poison for Democrats?  Crime is no distraction from the nation's fiscal and economic woes; it's closely intertwined with them.  A call to arms against crime can't possibly be twisted into a supposed "Republican war on women."  And if Republicans had not been neglecting the issue these many years, their electoral fortunes -- and the peace, happiness, and prosperity of the American people -- would have been much improved.

GOP strategists might argue, however, that conditions have changed since the year Michael Dukakis's softness on crime cooked the Democrats' goose.  In 1988, crime rates had been soaring for two decades, but now, with government doing all it can to battle crime, those rates have been falling for two decades.  No Democratic presidential nominee since Dukakis has dared appear to be soft on crime, so what's the point of talking about it now?

But government is not doing all it could do against crime, and crime has not been driven down as low as it can go.   Per-capita crime rates remain almost twice what they were in 1960, the year FBI crime statistics assumed their modern form.  The only exception is murder, which has receded completely thanks to improvements in emergency trauma care.  Murderous attacks are a different story.  When the victim survives, they are called aggravated assaults, a category that remains almost three times its 1960 rate.

Furthermore, what we have been doing about crime is hugely expensive.  The incarceration rate is seven times what it was in 1960.  That reflects a lot of convicts who repaid the cost of their upbringing by becoming first a menace and then a burden to society, and a lot of tax dollars diverted from productive uses into mere containment.  Incarceration may have curbed the crime cancer, but it hasn't beaten crime down.  It hasn't extinguished the gangster culture that continues to thrive both in and out of prison.

True law and order means that people are law-abiding, not that people have been locked up.  James Q. Wilson put it this way: "One can imagine living in a society in which the shared values of the people ... would produce a citizenry less criminal than ours is now without diminishing to any significant degree the political liberties we cherish.  Indeed, we can do more than imagine it; we can recall it" [3].

Wilson was referring to the Victorian era, but his words could just as easily apply to another era liberals despise, an era many of us can still recall: the 1950s.  Those enviable 1960 statistics open a window on that bygone "Ozzie and Harriet" world.

Many of the social ills that have bedeviled us since then bear upon the economy and the deficit.  But crime bleeds the country more than any of them, and unlike other social issues, there is no ambiguity in the public's attitude toward crime and its remedies.  And that especially includes the one remedy we haven't yet deployed to its full potential.

Here's one more statistic from the '50s: murderers were more than twice as likely then than now to land on death row.  They were even more likely to face execution in the decades previous, but that still had only a small scattering of murderers ever paying for their crimes with their lives.  And one of the people who complained about that was the American icon Will Rogers.

A contemporary of Capone and Dillinger, Rogers skewered crime with comments like this: "Papers have been commenting on the novel way the state of Nevada executed a man for committing murder.  The novelty of that was that a prisoner was executed in any way for just committing murder."  And this: "Of course, the best way out of this crime wave would be to punish the criminals, but, of course, that is out of the question!  That's barbarous, and takes us back, as the hysterics say, to the days before civilization" [4].

What form of punishment is endlessly condemned by "the hysterics" as uncivilized?  Why, capital punishment, of course.  Yet, despite the liberal elite's best efforts, almost two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty.  And that margin would be even greater if more people realized, as few do, that capital punishment is a powerful deterrent when actually enforced.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry had an opportunity to drive that point home when he was challenged on the issue back during the Republican primary debates.  His failure to seize that opportunity -- the first of his campaign blunders -- indicates that even the governor of Texas is unaware of capital punishment's potential deterrent effect.

Worse, momentum on this issue is going the wrong way.  In 2007, less than a month after The New York Times reported with astonishment that "according to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives," the Democrat-led state of New Jersey abolished capital punishment.  In 2011, Democrat-led Illinois did the same, and this year, Democrat-led Connecticut followed suit.  As I wrote in 2008, these Democrats essentially told future murder victims: "Drop Dead."

How might the facts about crime, executions, and deterrence be raised at this late date?  Simple: just look at Chicago.  Murder there is skyrocketing, and, so far as I know, no one in charge has pointed to the fact that Illinois has no death penalty.  Chicagoland murders were surging also in 2008, a fact I noted in an election post-mortem.  Then as now, however, Republicans made nothing of it.

But if Mitt Romney were to decry the mayhem in Chicago, then the issue of crime and punishment could take its rightful place in this year's campaign.  Romney could contrast Chicago's distress with the relative peace in the big cities of Texas, a state with similar demographics but a relatively active execution chamber.  He could tell the story, as Perry failed to do, of how Texas became notorious as Death Row Central -- and cut its murder rate by almost two-thirds while murder in non-death penalty states fell only 21 percent [5].  "The laboratory of the states" has seldom yielded starker results.

Such a step would not only work to Romney's advantage.  It would help clear a path toward the speedy restoration of true law and order, thereby conferring an immense benefit on every innocent man, woman, and child in America.  A law-abiding culture, like a healthy lifestyle, may keep us cancer-free in future.  But first, we must remove the tumor.

Karl Spence is author of Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?  His work has appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker, and National Review.


[1] The editors of Time-Life Books, "The Hero Cop," This Fabulous Century, v. IV, pp. 108-113.

 

[2] Charles Portis, True Grit, p. 166.

[3] Wilson, "Thinking About Crime: The Debate Over Deterrence," The Atlantic Monthly, September 1983, p. 88.

[4] Bryan B. Sterling, ed., The Best of Will Rogers, pp. 89-93.  More about Rogers and his views on crime, punishment, and what makes for a law-abiding culture may be found here between Notes 8 and 12 and between Notes 25 and 27.

[5]   Rates are calculated using data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the Texas Department of Public Safety's Crime Information Bureau, and the Death Penalty Information Center.  More about the Texas experience may be found here between Notes 10 and 11.

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