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Defining Criminality Up

In his seminal 1992 essay, “Defining Deviancy Down,” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan described how society has come to treat as “normal” behavior that an earlier time would have considered intolerable, even unthinkable. Mr. Moynihan focused mainly on how Americans have “normalized” predatory street crime: We avoid bad neighborhoods. We lock our doors and windows. We avoid public spaces like parks, ceding them to criminals. We install burglar alarms and buy guns. We hire private security guards and move to gated communities.

Increasingly Numb

In short, we do what we can to spare ourselves from crime, we bemoan government’s persistent failure to protect us even from known criminals, and we become increasingly numb to the everyday carnage others suffer. Meanwhile, academic experts assure us that crime is dropping and things aren’t really so bad. But if we care about stopping the next generation of criminals before it’s too late, we must start defining criminality back up. Here are five ways to begin:

1. Keep rosy crime statistics in perspective. It’s true that in New York and some other cities, reported crimes have fallen over the past few years. But only a fraction of all crimes are reported to the police, and there has been little real drop in nationwide crime rates since 1990. Based on the best data available, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 1994 Americans suffered 42.4 million crimes, 10.9 million of which were violent crimes. The BJS report shows that the violent crime rate “has been essentially unchanged since 1992, following a slight increase between 1985 and 1991.”

Some experts stress that “only” about 40% of all violent crimes are murders, rapes, robberies or aggravated assaults, “only” a third of all violent crimes involve a weapon, and “only” a third of robbery victims are injured. But as millions of crime victims know all too well, the difference between a burglary and a robbery, or between a robbery and a murder, is often the difference between a crime victim who dares to resist, or who comes home unexpectedly, or who twitches in fear, or who gets treated quickly in the emergency ward—and a crime victim who does not.

Even in cities where reported crimes have plummeted in recent years, the incidence of serious crime remains many times what it was just a few decades ago. In 1967 President Johnson’s crime commission declared that “there is much crime in America … far too much for the health of the Nation.” The commission singled out “the crime of robbery, which, since it involves both stealing and violence or the threat of it, is an especially hurtful and frightening one. In 1965 in America there were 118,916 robberies known to the police.” In 1994 there were 715,000 reported robberies—about five times as many per capita as the number the president’s commission had called “far too much for the health of the Nation.”

2. Acknowledge the banal brutality of today’s criminals. Even the best statistical analyses can’t capture the whole truth about crime in America. Consider the horrifying murder in March of Kathleen Weinstein, a 45-year-old New Jersey teacher. She was abducted by a 17-year-old boy who had bragged to his friends that he was going to steal a Toyota Camry for his birthday. He forced himself into her car, told her he had a gun, and demanded that she drive to a wooded area. In a 24-minute tape Ms. Weinstein surreptitiously recorded, she is heard begging for her life and counseling the boy not to ruin his own life by harming her. “All you have to do,” she pleads, “is let me go and take my car.” In response, the boy asks about the car’s service record—then smothers her with her own clothes. No amount of scholarly rationalization can deny the sickening depravity of such a crime. But suppose a state trooper had happened by and arrested the boy before he killed Ms. Weinstein. Then he would have been recorded as an “auto thief” or at most an “unarmed robber”—not an attempted murderer. And, of course, he would have been a mere “first-time juvenile offender.”


3. Hold the line on vicious juvenile crime. Ms. Weinstein’s murderer exemplifies the growing threat of juvenile super-predators who maim and murder without remorse or fear. But many crime scholars dismiss the threat. Boys will be boys, they suggest, impulsive and prone to get into trouble. Here are the facts: The number of gun homicides by juveniles in this country has nearly tripled since 1983. The rate of arrests on weapons charges for teenage males 15 to 18 more than doubled between 1983 and 1992. The number of juvenile gang killings nearly quadrupled from 1980 to 1992.

Not so long ago we had lots of guns, poverty, racism and surely teenage boys of every race, creed and color. But we also had more intact, church-going families, and we had nothing like today’s level of carnage. If we heed the “experts” and normalize remorseless, impulsive violence by young boys, we will get what we deserve: ever higher levels of violent youth crime that won’t be confined to the inner cities.

4. Focus on prisoners’ total criminal histories. Those who define criminality down insist that even those who get to prison are often petty offenders who pose no real danger. The numbers tell a different story. A BJS report found that in 1991, 62% of all state prisoners had a history of violence. Another 32% were recidivists with no history of violence, so that 94% of prisoners were violent or repeat criminals. A pair of studies that Harvard economist Anne Piehl and I conducted in 1990 and 1993 found that the median number of crimes prisoners had committed in the year prior to their imprisonment was 12—not including drug crimes.

Earlier this year I concluded and exhaustive analysis of the complete adult and juvenile histories of a randomly selected sample of state prisoners from urban areas. Among other things, I found that most inmates serving time for a nonviolent crime had committed violent crimes in the past, 91% of all prisoners had a current or prior adult or juvenile conviction for a violent crime, 77% had violated the terms of probation or parole, and 41% had committed their most recent crime while on probation or parole.

Dangerous Parolees

The last finding corresponds with BJS data, which show that 45% of state prisoners nationally were on probation or parole when they committed their latest crime—crimes that, for the 1991 prisoner population, included 13,000 murders, 11,600 rapes and 218,000 violent crimes altogether. The experts usually emphasize that most parolees and probationers don’t commit violent crimes—but that’s like responding to an epidemic of airplane crashes that claims thousands of lives by arguing that we don’t need to do anything since, after all, only a small fraction of all yearly takeoffs and landings end in crashes.

5. Save the children. Decades of defining criminality down have diminished not only society’s will to restrain felons, but our will to protect the innocent children who are most at risk of becoming criminals or crime victims. A society that numbs its natural outrage at criminals inevitably also dulls its natural compassion for the innocent. Anti-incarceration advocates have only themselves to blame when even their more sensible pleas for saving at-risk children fall on deaf ears and hollow hearts.

America’s inner cities are populated by growing numbers of poor, fatherless, abused and neglected children who with every justification can lift their eyes to heaven and cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” These children are more likely than anyone else to become both criminals and victims. Unless we stop defining criminality down, they will soon teach us the hard way what the Roman sages knew: What a society does to its children, its children will do to society.

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