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The Evidence Against Media Violence:  Crime Drops?

More on The Evidence Against Media Violence. From an e-mail by Sgt. Chris Pascoe, Michigan State Police:

There has been a lot of press coverage regarding the drop in crime, as recently shown in government statistics. This is good news, and congratulations should go to police officers across the country. Unfortunately, some in the media have already seized upon this decrease to declare victory over crime, as if human nature has suddenly changed and our social ills were cured, and they are hinting that police can afford to let up on their law enforcement efforts (and expenditures). But if you look at "all" of the statistics, you will see that America's problems are far from over: police have more than tripled the prison population in the last decade (hiding the problem from public view), and the major causes of crime remain intact, with an ever growing juvenile population whose rate of violent crime remains above all previously recorded averages. We should look at the big picture before making any assumptions.

The June 2001 issue of The American Enterprise has an extensive analysis of the recent reduction in crime that has come as a result of hard work by America's criminal justice professionals, and the public's demand for stricter enforcement. It shows the high price that has been paid to reduce crime, the greater benefits, and argues that crime could re-explode if public and political support for law enforcement wanes, because there is still a lot of work to do. Here are some extrapolations from their report:

During the last decade and a half, crime rates fell by about a third in the United States -- one of the sharpest reductions since organized record keeping began early in the century. Contrary to stereotypes, America is significantly less crime ridden today than England (robberies in England, for instance, are now double America's rate). Serious violence in America (murder, rape, robbery, assault) has fallen back to roughly the level of the 1960s. But we're hardly in paradise -- attacks are still much higher than in the 50s and earlier decades.

America's crime drop is linked to more spending on policing, prisons, and criminal justice. But going after criminals seems to be money well spent. As costly as it can be to stop crime, letting crimes happen is even more expensive. A variety of recent academic studies suggest the aggregate economic and personal costs of crime are huge -- much greater than the costs of fighting back against crime. Econometric analysis suggests recent increases in public investment in jails have returned about two dollars for every dollar spent.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that, in constant 1997 dollars, national spending against crime went up from $60 billion in 1982, to $131 billion by 1997. And as a result, in that same time period, persons in prison went up from about 320,000 to over 1,285,000. A society that lacks the self-confidence to protect itself from individuals who will not follow the rules is in danger. That said, it must be acknowledged that decisions about putting people behind bars should never be made lightly -- because most prisons today are very bad places to be.

There have been assertions by some political groups that America's prisons are bulging with relatively harmless small-time drug offenders who would be better of out from behind bars and in treatment programs. But special interests misinterpret statistics when they look at charges that have been plea-bargained down.

In reality, as any police officer will tell you, if you want to go to prison, you need to work at it -- almost no one goes to prison today for casual drug use. In fact, few people go to prison even for selling drugs in small to moderate quantities on a first-time basis. The vast majority of drug criminals and other lawbreakers who end up in prison today are there because they are either violent, a multiple offender with a long record, or a committer of a major felony.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 50% of state prison inmates are violent repeat offenders, 31% are non-violent repeat offenders, 13% are non-violent first offenders, and 6% are violent first offenders. That means fully 87% were either violent or repeat offenders. Less than 2% of state prisoners were serving time for marijuana charges, and of those most were large-scale traffickers. The average marijuana trafficker in federal prison was arrested with 3.5 "tons" of weed, the average cocaine trafficker with 180 pounds.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics calculated that "tripling the prison population from 1975 to 1989 may have prevented 390,000 murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults in 1989 alone. Had crime not fallen as it did during the last decade, this year we would have seen about 8,000 additional murders, about 25,000 additional rapes, and around a quarter-million more serious assaults. But the progress may soon be coming to an end. In the last year or so, crime rates have leveled off or even edged up slightly. The core problems that cause crime are still there, and in some cases, getting worse. In interviews with prisoners, two constants emerge: family problems and drugs. The resulting deviance generally begins early, in juvenile years.

If you think "juvenile delinquent" only means a 17-year-old minority male from the inner city whose impoverished single-mother is on welfare, you haven't been paying attention lately. There are now legions of seriously messed up kids who look just like the ones in the suburb next door. How youths view their parents, and authority, has changed. There is a new selfish arrogance in many kids, at levels we have never seen before. More kids -- including the privileged and the very young -- are growing up lost and uncivilized. Even elementary schools are experiencing discipline problems.

Inner-city family life hasn't gotten dramatically better, and unfortunately, the family breakdown virus has meantime spread to fresh fields, and is now doing its dirty work with a vengeance in Middle America. Twenty-six percent of all white births are now to unmarried mothers. That plus the fact that a million children see their parents divorce every year means a vast portion of even middle-class American youngsters now grow up separate from either their dad or mom. That is not good for the crime rate, as even prison inmates will tell you. On top of this, we have a popular culture, sold via the media, that has become a horror show when it comes to developing morality in our kids. It all adds up to a devastating portrait of what could come as the number of juveniles swell in the coming years.

While overall crime has been reduced, juvenile crime remains elevated above average levels. In particular, the homicide offender rate of 14-17 year olds exploded after 1985, surpassing the rates of 25-35 and 35-45 year olds. Based on projections of population growth of 14-17 year olds and the recent trends in offending rates, the FBI is concerned that homicides (and other violent crimes) by this age group could rise by almost 30% by 2005.

Many of today's kids seem emotionally flat-lined, going to greater and greater extremes just to get some excitement. Gone are the days when beer drinking was the problem, or "drugs" meant a marijuana joint. Today's kids want a more extreme high, with chic "designer drugs" like Ecstasy, and they are in total denial regarding the dangers. So potent and destructive are they that once someone gets hooked there is a quick slide into self-destruction.

Just as marijuana is a gateway drug to harder drugs, we now see that minor crimes like shoplifting have become a gateway to more severe crimes, all for the "excitement" of it. As one police officer put it, "Drugs and crime go together like gum and sidewalks," and legalizing drugs won't change that sticky connection. It's not just the cost of drugs that leads to crime. There is a diminishment of self-respect — and respect for others — that goes along with substance abuse.

A 1997 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in 92 percent of the domestic violence cases investigated, the assailant had used alcohol or drugs on the day of the assault. Fully 72 percent of the attackers had a previous arrest for substance abuse. Half of the criminals aged 15-20 arrested in 23 major cities were on marijuana at the time they were picked up. The average age of the first use of marijuana, nationwide, is now about 13. Among all prison inmates, 80 percent have used drugs. Fully 30 percent were on drugs when they committed their crime. 50 percent of callers to a national cocaine hotline reported that they had committed acts of violence while on the drug.

Are things really that bad? Certainly most kids, lucky enough to have love and discipline in their lives, manage to hold themselves apart from these sorts of problems. But it is also true that nearly every community now has a significant population of angry, lost, troubled kids in its midst.

Rob's reply
A few thoughts:

Pascoe seems to place most of the blame on "family problems." Fact is, parents are spending more time with their children, not less, according to one recent study. Meanwhile, many studies have documented the rise in media violence and our kids' immersion in it the last few decades. The evidence suggests media violence is a greater problem than Pascoe thinks, even though he mentioned it.

Videos and music also encourage drug use, even if they don't mention it, by glamorizing the hip, young lifestyle. Being cool is all about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll these days—more so than ever. If kids copy their peers' ideas, where did the peers get the ideas in the first place? Not from their (possibly absent) parents, but from the media.

Pascoe says the vast majority of drug criminals are in prison because they're violent or repeat offenders. Perhaps so, but we still should consider decriminalizing drug use. Drug trafficking is lucrative because it's prohibited; it's violent because we expend enormous resources making it difficult. If we simply decriminalized drugs, the incentive to commit violent or repeat crimes would disappear. No incentive, no crimes.

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