Prison, Crime Rates and The Limits of Ideology

In a great  New Yorker article about American incarceration, Adam Gopnik dissects the drop of crime in New York City:

The change didn’t come from resolving the deep pathologies that the right fixated on—from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for the underlying causes pointed to by the left: injustice, discrimination, poverty. Nor were there any “Presto!” effects arising from secret patterns of increased abortions or the like.

The city didn’t get much richer; it didn’t get much poorer. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, that is, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect. […]

Paragraphs like this demonstrate how weak democracy is for solving complex problems. The vast majority of the population doesn’t know very much about crime, policing, prisons or what is likely to produce a favorable ratio between the three. So we fall back on ideology.

Right-wing people want harsh sentencing and strong enforcement not because these have been shown to systematically reduce crime, but because they are a component of their ideology. This is the solution they propose regardless of the problem.

Similarly, left-wing people want more social programs, poverty reduction and equality promotion not because these are empirically effective, but because they are goods in themselves. These will be the first three suggestions for government intervention regardless of the subject matter.

Like all complex social phenomena, the effective intervention turns out to be more complicated and–sigh–as always, morally problematic:

Instead, small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.”

This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. […] Minority communities, Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced. 

I don’t know how this policy came about, but if it’s actually the case that it contributed significantly to NYC’s drop in crime rates, I wonder if either the left or the right would accept it being rolled out more systematically. In other words, are we willing to accept something that doesn’t conform to our ideology if it’s effective at solving a genuine social problem? I fear not.

Anyway, this whole article just makes me never want to have opinions about anything ever again.

Gopnik concludes:

Every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world.

At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care. 


Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

4 responses to “Prison, Crime Rates and The Limits of Ideology

  1. DW

    Such a simple, elegant solution to limit the opportunities to commit crimes. I haven’t verified this, but a friend who lived in Anchorage claimed that the crime rate was much lower in the summer than the winter because of all those daylight hours.

  2. redheadjourney

    Actually it was Roe vs Wade. And it didn’t just happen in NYC. re: Freakonomics.

  3. I threw you to the wolves over at Unfogged. I liked the post, but they’re a contrarian bunch so please let me know if you’d rather I hadn’t.

  4. Frederik

    Dammit you made me think. Had a small moment of reflection before I fell back on my ideology.
    Dont do that again…

    Frederik, Denmark
    Reader since your computer was seized