Eight Lessons We’ve Learned About the Epidemic of Crime and What to Do About it
In the 30 years since Congress first established a federal agency for the study of crime, we have spent millions of dollars on criminological studies. That investment is finally bearing fruit. Aided by powerful new computers crunching reams of data, social scientists have learned a lot about criminal careers, how they develop, and how society can thwart them.
The most serious offenders against people and property in this country generally hit their criminal peak between 16 and 18 years of age. The hard-core young thug-to-be starts stealing from mama’s purse before he’s 10. By the fourth and fifth grades, he is skipping school. As he enters his teens, he’s gang banging – and on the track to prison or an early violent death. Typically he is committing burglaries at about 15, armed robberies at 16, and often killing by 18 – and sometimes much younger. After years of effort to contain the crime committed by these hoodlums, we know what works and what doesn’t. At long last, we have all the knowledge we need to design an effective strategy for the prevention of crime.
1. Most serious crime is committed by a violent minority of predatory recidivists.
Criminologist Marvin Wolfgang compiled records of all of the 9,945 males born in 1945 and attending school in Philadelphia between the ages of 10 and 18. A mere 627 – just under 7 percent – were chronic offenders, with five or more arrests by age 18. These so-called Dirty Seven Percenters committed more than half of all offenses and two-thirds of the violent crimes, including all the murders, that were committed by the entire cohort.
Wolfgang followed his “Class of ‘45” through its 30th year in 1975. Shockingly few offenders were incarcerated. Even the 14 murderers among them spent an average of only four years behind bars for these crimes. Worse, these hard-core criminals admitted in interviews that, for each arrest, they typically got away with 8 to 11 other serious crimes. Wolfgang found that 70 percent of juveniles arrested three times committed a fourth offense; of those, 80 percent not only committed a fifth offense, but kept at it through 20 or more. If the city’s judges had sent each Dirty Seven Percenters to prison for just a year after his third offense, Wolfgang calculated, Philadelphians would have suffered 7,200 fewer serious crimes while they were off the streets.
Wolfgang’s findings electrified the law-enforcement world. At the request of U.S. Attorney general Edward Levi, Wolfgang repeated the study on the 13,160 Philadelphian males born in 1958. The proportion of chronic offenders was virtually the same: 982 young men (7.5 percent) collected five or more arrests before age 18. But the crimes committed by the “Class of ‘58” were bloodier and far more frequent. Compared with the Class of ‘45, these youths were twice as likely to commit rape and aggravated assault, three times more likely to murder, and five times more likely to commit robbery. They were, concluded Wolfgang, “a very violent criminal population of a small number of nasty, brutal offenders. They begin early in life and should be controlled equally early.”
Other studies with different methodologies corroborated Wolfgang’s approximate finding of 7 percent in places as different as London; Copenhagen; Orange County, California; Racine, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix, Arizona; and Salt Lake City, Utah.
2. A minority of this minority is extraordinarily violent, persistent, or both.
They are “Super Predators,” far more dangerous than the rest. Researchers for Rand questioned 2,190 prisoners convicted of robbery in California, Texas, and Michigan. Nearly all admitted to many more crimes than those for which they were jailed. But a tiny fraction of these career criminals proved to be extraordinarily frequent offenders. The least active 50 percent of burglars averaged a little under six burglaries a year, while the most prolific 10 percent averaged more than 230. The least active 50 percent of the robbers committed five robberies a year on average, but the top 10 percent averaged 87. The distribution of drug-dealing offenses was even more skewed: Half of these convicts did 100 deals a year on average, while the highest tenth averaged 3,251.
Sociologist Delbert S. Elliott of the University of Colorado has tracked a nationally representative sample of 1,725 boys and girls who were between 11 and 17 years old in 1976. By 1989, 369 of them had committed one or more serious, violent offenses. But only 32 were high-rate offenders. Year after year, those in this small group committed an average of 30 violent crimes each and hundreds of lesser crimes. Just under 2 percent of the whole, they accounted for half the serious crimes committed by the entire group. These Super Predators distinguish themselves by their arrest records, by the early age at which they first tangle with the law, and by the seriousness of their early offenses. Nationally, we can crudely estimate the current crop of young “super felons” at about 500,000 of our 26.7 million 11- to 17-year-olds.
3. Most of these persistent predators are criminal psychopaths, and we now have a scientifically valid instrument to identify them with reasonable accuracy.
Psychopaths are responsible for more than half of all serious crimes. The normal criminal has an internalized set of values, however warped, and he feels guilt whenever he violates his standards. The psychopath doesn’t even know what guilt is, because he has never experienced it. But he is good at faking it.
Even within prison populations, psychopaths stand out because their anti-social and illegal behavior is more varied and frequent than that of ordinary criminals. In prisons and mental hospitals, they are generally the nastiest inmates. They are more resistant to treatment, more likely to try to escape, and more violent with other inmates and the staff. After they are released, they re-offend at four to five times the rate of other criminals. Psychopaths constitute an estimated 1 to 2 percent of the population – and 20 to 25 percent of our prison population. This means the United States has at least 2 million psychopaths.
After 25 years of research, psychologist Robert D. Hare of the University of British Columbia developed a reliable instrument for diagnosing psychopathy: the Hare Psychopathy Check List. After interviewing relatives and associates and studying criminal and other records, a trained clinician interviews the subject and scores him on 20 personality traits and behaviors characteristic of this personality disorder. Is the person glib, manipulative, a liar, sexually promiscuous, grandiose in his sense of self-worth, impulsive, averse to boredom, incapable of remorse? Was he trouble from an early age? Does he have a juvenile and adult arrest record? Has he had many short-term marital relationships? And so on.
Hare, in his 1993 book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, says: “Psychopaths are social predators who charm, manipulate, and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations, and empty wallets.
Completely lacking in conscience and feelings for others, they selfishly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.” Studies of Canadian and American convicts released from prison show that only about 20 percent of the low scorers on the PCL are re-arrested within three years, but 80 percent of the high scorers end up back behind bars.
The PCL can be a powerful tool for prison administrators, parole boards, judges, and others who must cope with this extraordinarily destructive population. High scorers are poor risks for probation or parole and good candidates for maximum sentences in higher security institutions. Maryland prison officials have used the PCL to assess some 10,000 inmates. It has enabled them to divert low scorers from costly maximum-security facilities into lower-cost units or parole, freeing up 1,100 prison beds a day, which yields $19.8 million in savings a year. Moreover, the state has avoided an estimated $55 million in new prison construction. Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and most American states are now using the PCL in their prison systems.
4. Savvy police, prosecutors, and judges can identify and isolate high-rate violent predators.
In Miami, sociologist James A. Inciardi used a “snowballing” interview technique to find them. He sent researchers into high-crime neighborhoods to talk to youngsters about “who’s doing drugs” and “who’s into crime.” They found 611 youngsters ages 12 to 17 who admitted to multiple crimes and repeated drug use. Ninety percent of them had been arrested, an equal proportion had been thrown out of school, and almost half had been incarcerated. Typically they began to use alcohol at age seven and turned to crime and drugs at 11; almost two-thirds had participated in a robbery by the age of 13. The interviewees confessed to a total of 429,136 criminal acts during the year prior to their interviews – more than 700 each, or nearly two a day. Of these acts, 18,477, or 30 apiece, were major felonies, including 6,269 robberies and 721 assaults. Nearly 18 percent had committed armed robberies, as young as 14, and 90 percent carried weapons most of the time. Among this violent crowd, 361 committed the 6,269 robberies – an average of 17 each – and two-thirds of them robbed before the age of 13.
If sociologists can find the Super Predators, police can, too. William Bratton proved it, first in New York City’s subway system in 1990, then citywide after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani named him police commissioner in 1994. By 1990, the New York subway had become a lawless jungle. Riders were deserting by the tens of thousands. An estimated 180,000 fare evaders jumped the turnstiles every day, costing the system $65 million a year. Vandals jammed coin slots and opened exit doors; aggressive panhandlers threatened riders on the cars; muggers stole their tokens and money. Violent teenagers prowled the subways in “wolfpacks.”
As the chief of New York’s 4,000 transit police officers, Bratton created strategies for winnowing out the criminal minority. He ordered uniformed officers to enforce all subway rules. He planted plainclothes teams to arrest fare evaders. Each of them was searched; one in 14 was arrested for packing illegal guns, and one out of seven was wanted on previous criminal warrants. Whenever detectives caught one mugger, they extracted information about other wolfpack members. They also tracked down a group of about 75 hard-core graffiti vandals. Bratton insisted that his officers act on bench warrants for subway crimes within 24 hours. Their apprehension rate rose sharply to more than 60 percent. The hunters became the hunted. Bratton’s strategies cut subway crime by two-thirds – and robberies by three-fourths. Fare evaders were reduced by two-thirds, too. Riders returned by the ten of thousands. By 1994 New York’s subways were the scene of fewer than 20 felonies a day, down 64 percent in five years.
Named in 1994 to head the whole police department, Bratton and his deputy commissioner, Jack Maple, implemented a strategy of “relentless pursuit.” Bratton personally urged officers to cite citizens for “quality of life” offenses such as drinking beer in public, smoking marijuana, or urinating in the street, and to frisk offenders for illegal weapons at the slightest suspicion. Maple launched a campaign to remind officers to interrogate every arrestee. Talented interrogators created a three-day “verbal judo” course at the police academy to teach officers how to extract information from suspects. New York’s cops responded enthusiastically, and with dramatic results. A topless dancer arrested for prostitution fingered the bouncer at her Brooklyn club in an unsolved murder. A car thief turned in a fence, who then turned in a father-son gun-dealing team. A parolee arrested for failing to report turned out to have been the only eyewitness to a drug-related murder.
This campaign produced “a miracle happening before our eyes,” says Jeffrey Fagan, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Violence Research and Prevention. From 1994 to 1996, New York City’s murders declined by 49 percent, robberies 43 percent, burglaries 39 percent, and grand larcenies 32 percent. In 1995, the city accounted for 70 percent of the heralded national decline in serious crimes.
5. The rehabilitation ideal of the juvenile-court system leads to costly coddling of serious and persistent offenders.
Studies show that youths who land in juvenile court a second time will likely become chronic offenders. Howard N. Snyder, a researcher with the National Council of Family and Juvenile Court Judges, analyzed the records of 48,311 boys who went through juvenile courts in Utah and Arizona. More than half never returned after the first trip. But most of those who landed in court a second time before their 16th birthdays became persistent repeaters, and the earlier their first prosecution, the more likely they were to be violent chronics.
It is important to note that a troublesome youngster typically has 10 or 12 contacts with the criminal-justice system and many more undiscovered offenses before he ever receives any formal “adjudication,” or finding of guilt, from a judge. He quickly concludes that he will never face any serious consequences for his delinquency. For each young chronic offender who comes before him, a juvenile-court judge typically moves toward more severe punishments and costly interventions in five or more small steps. Snyder recommends that judges impose upon second-time convicts stiffer penalties and the more intense (and costly) rehabilitation programs. Waiting until the fourth or fifth offense to do so only wastes court time and money – and looses serious crime upon the public.
In Richmond, Virginia, a juvenile-court psychologist estimated that court costs, rehabilitation efforts, and incarceration for just 14 defendants who cycled through her court regularly totaled more than $2 million. Welfare, food stamps, court-appointed lawyers, and other services over the years swelled their cost to taxpayers to more than $5 million. She tracked 56 young men locked in the youth-detention center over one five-day period. On average, they were 15 years old and had compiled 12 arrests apiece for crimes of escalating severity. Social-service agencies had intervened in their lives at an average age of nine, and their criminal activity began four years later, on average, though some started as early as age seven. Their offenses ranged from curfew violation to rape and murder. A year later, one-third had graduated to adult prisons. Three-fourths were still incarcerated or faced new charges or warrants. Almost all those older than 15 who had been released faced new charges.
6. Punishment works – and the United States has barely tried it.
Psychologist Sarnoff A. Mednick of the University of Southern California studied the records of thousands of Danish criminals and discovered that punishment is very effective in deterring crime. He compared the criminal histories of thousands of offenders in Copenhagen and Philadelphia who had exactly four or five arrests. Those who received four punishments in a row for their crimes were unlikely to have a fifth arrest. But those who had been punished irregularly after the earlier arrests were more likely to be arrested again.
Mednick studied 28,879 males born in Copenhagen between 1944 and 1947 who lived there through age 26. He found that 6,579 had at least one arrest. The third of arrestees who were not punished went on to commit far more crimes. Mednick found 3,809 offenders were punished after every single arrest, while 2,793 were not. Those who escaped punishment committed three times as many crimes as those consistently punished. Punishment delivered after every offense significantly reduced later offenses. But an offender who was punished for early crimes and received none for later offenses resumed criminal activity at the higher rates.
It made little difference whether the punishment was fines, probation, or incarceration. Consistent delivery of sanctions was more effective than intermittent sanctions, and criminal recidivism recovered when punishment was discontinued. Severity of sanction also made little difference: Longer jail terms, higher fines, and longer probations did not decrease subsequent offenses more than lighter sanctions did.
“Punishment is very effective in suppressing crime, and it does not have to be severe if you get on them early enough,” says Mednick. “The way to reduce prison populations is to punish offenders from their first offense with graduated, increasingly severe and certain sanctions. But the records show we do not do that in America.” Mednick compared the Danish criminals to those in Marvin Wolfgang’s Philadelphia cohort studies. The Philadelphia figures confirmed the effectiveness of punishment, but he also found that only 14 percent of the four- and five-time offenders in the Philadelphia cohorts were punished, compared with 60 percent of those in Denmark.
“The big problem with our handling of criminals in America is that they’re not punished,” he wrote. “People are usually surprised to hear that, because of all our prisons. But the fact is by the time a guy makes his way to jail, that’s very often his first punishment. And he usually has committed 15 offenses by then. He might have been arrested 10 times. In Philadelphia, the kids committed huge numbers of offenses, and serious ones, and nothing happened. They just laughed. Our laws provide severe punishments, but . . . they deter not the criminals but the judges. They don’t want to throw a kid who’s done some little thing in jail, so they just let him go.”
7. Prisons work, and they are a relative bargain.
Critics of incarceration claim it has failed because about two-thirds of those released soon land back behind bars. But these studies begin with a batch of released convicts, and each batch contains a high proportion of repeaters who cycle through the revolving doors of justice. Moreover, criminologists have found that these hard-core repeaters get away with a dozen or more serious crimes for every arrest. But two-thirds to three-fourths of criminals sent to prison for the first time never return.
One study that tracked the careers of 6,310 California prisoners released in 1962-63 revealed a shocking picture. These were hard-core criminals: 56 percent had been in prison before, and 44 percent served time for violent crimes, burglary, or robbery. Over the next 26 years, these convicts were arrested 30,464 times, and were probably responsible for more than a quarter-million unsolved crimes. More than half the arrests were nuisance offenses such as parole violations, drunk driving, and disorderly conduct. But the ex-cons were also arrested for about 10,000 serious crimes, including 184 homicides, 2,084 assaults, 126 kidnappings, 144 rapes, 2,756 burglaries, 655 auto thefts, and 1,193 robberies. California could have kept all 5,192 second-termers locked away for an estimated cost of only $2.1 billion – a real bargain in public safety.
Patrick A. Langan, a statistician at the U.S. Department of Justice, calculates that, by doubling the number of criminals in prison from 1973 to 1982, the United States reduced reported crime by 10 to 20 percent. This amounted to 66,000 to 190,000 fewer robberies and 350,000 to 900,000 fewer burglaries in 1982 alone. By tripling the prison population from 1975 to 1989, Langan estimates, we prevented 390,000 murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults just in 1989.
California tripled its prison population in the decade after 1984 – and achieved a significant drop in the rates of reported crime from its peak in 1980-81. Bucking nationwide trends, by 1993 California had reduced murders by 10.4 percent, rapes by 36 percent, and burglaries by a whopping 43 percent. By the 1990s, that meant nearly 1,000 fewer murders, 16,000 fewer robberies, and a quarter of a million fewer burglaries yearly. The overall serious crime rate fell 14 percent.
The American public is catching on. In 1990, Oregon voters passed, by a margin of three to one, an anti-crime initiative that requires a criminal convicted of a second violent offense to serve his entire sentence with no parole. In November 1993, voters in Washington state passed by a similar margin a “three strikes and you’re out” law, which imposes automatic life sentences for three-time felony convicts. Within two years, 14 states altogether and Congress had adopted such laws.
California has been a leader in the “three strikes” movement. The state automatically doubles the sentence for a felon with a prior conviction for a serious or violent felony. A third felony of any sort can trigger a life sentence, with eligibility for parole after 25 years. Philip J. Romero, Governor Pete Wilson’s chief economist, estimates that the new law will add an extra 8,300 convicts a year to the state’s prison population and will cost $6.5 billion for new prisons in the first five years – but will save society $23 billion net in crime prevented. A Rand study concluded that the new California law, if fully implemented, will cut serious felonies committed by adults between 22 and 34 percent.
In 1994, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the largest bipartisan association of state legislators, published a stunning analysis of prison populations and crime rates in all 50 states. The 10 states that increased their prison populations the most in relation to serious crimes between 1980 and 1992 cut their crime rates by an average of 19 percent. Meanwhile, the 10 states with the smallest increases in incarceration rates saw their crime rates go up by 9 percent on average.
In the 1980s, New Hampshire’s legislature executed one of the sharpest policy reversals in the nation. For 20 years, legislators had added little new prison capacity, and the imprisonment rate – the number of prisoners per 1,000 crimes – declined by more than 80 percent, the third sharpest decline of any state. Meanwhile crime had soared by 579 percent, the highest increase in the nation.
All that changed after convicted killer Edward Coolidge, while serving a prison sentence of 25 to 40 years, was released after 18 years with “time off for good behavior.” Coolidge had murdered Pamela Mason, a teenaged baby-sitter, and left her abused body in a snow bank. Outraged at his early release, Mason’s family started a statewide petition drive for a “truth in sentencing” law to require convicts to serve their minimum sentences in full. Legislators passed the law in 1984 and appropriated $65 million for new prison construction. As a result, New Hampshire increased its incarceration rate between 1980 and 1992 more than any state. In the meantime, crime declined by 34 percent, the steepest drop in the nation.
8. Families are the first line of defense, and we now know how to target and help children raised in our “cradles of crime.”
Experts agree that criminal behavior patterns crystallize by the age of eight, and sometimes much sooner. After age eight, youngsters are less likely to respond to correctional treatment as they gravitate toward truancy, street gangs, violent crime, and prison or early death. In Bellingham, Washington, Detective Steve Lance, who directs a police unit that targets serious habitual offenders who are juveniles, echoes: “If we wait until they’re eight, it’s too late. We’ve got to get them when they’re two.”
Dozens of scientific studies back up the cop’s street wisdom. For 60 years, criminologists and psychologists have tracked thousands of youngsters from early childhood into their adult years, identifying the risk factors and early warning signs of delinquency and persistent crime. In recent decades, they have carefully evaluated various early interventions and correctional treatments, comparing treated youngsters to matched groups of untreated ones, winnowing what works and what doesn’t. Today we know that the typical “cradles of crime” are households headed by poor unwed mothers who bore their first children as teenagers and live on welfare, usually in public housing with others like them, with few law-abiding, employed male role models among them. Seventy percent of the juvenile offenders in our state reform institutions grew up in a household with only one parent or no parent at all. Children whose mothers are teenagers when they are born have a 10.3 percent chance of landing in jail as juveniles, triple that of children whose mothers bore them between the ages of 20 and 23.
A number of early-childhood intervention programs have been shown to knock many high-risk youngsters off the track to crime, prison, and possible early violent death:
New York. Syracuse University’s Family Development Research Program experimented with a concentrated five-year child-care program for the group at highest risk for child-abuse and neglect complaints: poor, mostly single, pregnant teenagers who had not completed high school. Sixty-five of the women received prenatal health care and two years of weekly home visits by specialists who taught parenting skills, provided counseling in employment and education, and encouraged friends and family to help. Until their children entered public school, they received free day care at the University Children’s Center, which aims to develop children’s intellectual abilities.
At age 15, the delinquency rate of these kids was 89 percent lower than that of a control group. Moreover, the few who had tangled with the law committed less serious and fewer offenses than their counterparts. The untreated youngsters had cost the criminal-justice system alone – excluding injuries or property losses to victims – $1,985 apiece, compared with $186 per treated child.
Michigan. David Weikart, a University of Michigan doctoral candidate, randomly chose for a two-year enrichment program 58 three- and four-year-old black children from a poor Ypsilanti neighborhood with a terrible school failure rate. The program kids attended daily two-hour classes in small groups with a specialist in the teaching of language through play. Counselors visited their homes weekly to reinforce class activities and to teach the mothers parenting skills.
By the time they turned 27, the preschooled group earned higher grades and were more likely to have graduated, found well-paying jobs, and formed stable families than those in a control group. Even more sensational, the preschooled group averaged half the arrests of the control group, and only a fifth as many had been arrested five or more times. For every $1 spent on early enrichment, taxpayers realized $7.16 in benefits, mostly in savings from crimes prevented.
Quebec. Richard Trembley, a psychologist from the University of Montreal, tracked 104 of the most disruptive boys from 53 kindergartens. He gave 46 of the boys and their families two years of special training. Parents on average took part in 20 one-hour sessions in how to monitor their children’s behavior, praise and punish effectively, and handle family crises. Their boys got 19 sessions in how to make friends, invite others to play, handle anger, respond to rejection and teasing, and follow rules. Five years later, when the boys were 12, the proportion of those who had been involved in gang mischief, a precursor of serious delinquency, was one-tenth that of the untreated youths.
The popular “Head Start” program was also modeled on the Ypsilanti experiment’s successes. But, says James Q. Wilson, a political scientist at UCLA, bureaucrats and policymakers “stripped it down to the part that was the most popular, least expensive, and easiest to run, namely, preschool education. Absent from much of Head Start are the high teacher-to-child caseloads, the extensive home visits, and the elaborate parent training – the very things that probably account for much of the success of these programs.”A National Strategy In outline, a strategy for reducing crime through prevention and punishment would look like this: We should identify the families – mostly households started by unwed teenage mothers – that are likely to be “cradles of crime.” For a modest investment, we can sharply reduce the likelihood that their children will engage in persistent criminality by providing educational enrichment, parenting advice, and training in disciplined behavior. In pre-school or first or second grades, we can apply screening techniques at school to find those youngsters with a high risk of troubled futures. At the first contact with police, we should begin keeping permanent records. At the second offense, at the latest, we should bring to bear our best efforts at intensive supervision and family intervention, and impose the first of a series of unequivocal and escalating sanctions. Jailing serious three-time offenders would be a prudent alternative to suffering the millions of crimes habitual criminals perpetrate each year. We should insist that police and prosecutors learn to identify and pursue repeat offenders aggressively. We should hold judges and parole boards accountable for sentencing and incarcerating those felons for whom intervention has come too late, and we should not shrink from investing in the prison space needed to keep recidivists off the streets for good.
It is both humane and smart to turn delinquent youngsters away from a path of crime early, but in cases where all these efforts ultimately fail, in the words of the late sociologist Robert Martinson, “Lock ‘em up and weld the door shut!” Our crime rates will plummet.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 1997 issue of Policy Review and is reprinted here with the permission of The Heritage Foundation. Eugene H. Methvin, a Washington-based contributing editor to Reader’s Digest, has reported on the American criminal-justice system for more than 40 years. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (October 17, 1997). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.
The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity. (At the signing of the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform bill.)