Monday, May 13, 2024

The Crime Wave of the 1970s

Crime rates today are at an all-time low, but are edging up.  Nothing like the crime rates back in the 1970s, though!

When I took Criminal Law from Professor Starrs, he explained how crimes are prosecuted and why many crimes go unsolved and unpunished.  To begin with, we have to define what a crime is, by passing laws against certain acts.  Marijuana was once illegal in many States (and still is, at the Federal level) as was alcohol.  "Social" crimes like adultery, miscegenation, sodomy, gambling, and the like were once on the books, but have since been deemed unconstitutional or repealed.  So the first step is to determine what crime is.  And you'd be surprised as to what is and isn't a crime.

Next, we have to detect it.  If someone is victimized (burglary, robbery, assault, etc.) then they may report the crime.  But of course, many crimes go unreported, for many reasons.  If a crime it not reported or there is no immediate victim, police have to detect it, either by interrupting the crime in progress, or determining that a crime has occurred.  While we have so many Constitutional protections in our home, most of them don't apply once you are in your car.  Fail to signal a lane change, and you can get pulled over, at which point an officer can "detect" the presence of a secondary crime. So many criminal cases begin with a traffic stop.

But the police officer has discretion on who and when to charge - and this is where it gets tricky and allegations of discrimination kick in.  If you are a small-town cop and pull over the Mayor's son - who is drunk - you might decide to escort him home, rather than piss-off the guy who signs your paychecks. On the other hand, a poor kid from the other side of the tracks is likely to spend a night in jail.  Yea, the system is unfair.

It is a human thing.  And I've seen firsthand, how some lesser cops will make up their mind early-on as to who is guilty, if anybody.  Before he gets out of his car, the officer might have decided how things are going down - and arrest the victim, not the perpetrator, if anyone is arrested at all.  And like a dog with a bone, once they have decided, they are reluctant to give up on that notion.

Presuming what occurred is defined as a crime by the law, and presuming the police detect the crime, and presuming the perpetrator can be ascertained, and presuming the police decide to arrest the perpetrator, we are still far from over.

The prosecutor may decide ("prosecutorial discretion" or Nul Pros) not to bring charges, either because they are trivial (e.g., trumped-up "resisting arrest" charges) or because there is insufficient evidence to win at trial.  Prosecutors, like the police, have finite resources to bring to bear, and no prosecutor is going to waste much time on your stolen bicycle, particularly if it doesn't look like an easily winnable case.  The law of scarcity kicks in.

Assuming you've gotten by all those hurdles, it may turn out the perpetrator will work out a plea bargain and the perp will avoid jail time as a first offender or the like.  They might even have their record wiped clean.  Again, limited prosecutorial resources, so they punt when they can, and move on to the next case.

But let's assume that even that hurdle has been overcome and it actually goes to trial.  It may be months or even years before it is resolved.  And in many criminal cases, less than half of defendants are found guilty by a jury.  Of those found guilty, a certain percentage may have their conviction overturned on appeal.

So the odds of going to jail are somewhat long, and many criminals realize this. It ain't like Blue Bloods or Law and Order, where criminals are caught, tried, and convicted within an hour-long show. People like to believe that, and the "system" would like you to believe that - fear of being prosecuted is the only thing keeping many people on the straight and narrow.

As I noted before, my friends at the IRS explained that their two greatest weapons were withholding and the inordinate fear people have of the agency.  Without the former, no one would be able to pay their taxes come April 15th.  Without the latter, well, people would realize how unlikely it is to be audited and how unlikely it is you will end up owing more taxes (unless you are an outright tax cheat!).  Fear keeps us ordinary citizens in line.

The funny thing about these probabilities, though, is they don't stack.  If you commit crimes over and over again, the odds of getting caught go up with each crime.  Eventually, if you crime long enough, you will be caught. If you are a habitual speeder, you may not get caught every time, but eventually, you will blow through that speed trap and get busted.  Ask me how I know.  I drive the speed limit these days.  Then again, it ain't 55 MPH anymore.

That's the thing about criminals, though.  A young man may appear before a Judge and claim to be a first-time offender, but in reality, he is a first-time caught offender.  He may have committed numerous crimes, but was only caught for one.  People start to lose patience for criminals, particularly habitual criminals.

Historically, crime rates in the USA have decreased since the 1700's.  It sounds silly to go back that far, but you have to realize how lawless the United States was back in the "Frontier" days.  We romanticize the cowboy era where shootouts took place at the local saloon.  We even do re-enactments of these crimes for our amusement.   But murder is murder and it is never pretty.  We romanticize the shootout at the OK Corral, but not the slaughter of Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson "family."  Give it time, it will be an attraction at Disney World, just like "Pirates of the Caribbean" - a ride that makes a joke of rape, robbery, and murder.

We took a trip down the Natchez Trace, a walking path that is now a parkway.  Back in the frontier days, traders would built rafts and float goods down the Mississippi to sell in New Orleans - and then sell the wood from their rafts.  Loaded up with their entire income for the year, they would walk back North along the Natchez Trace.  Robbers would await them, of course, and murder them and take their money - disposing of the corpse in whatever way they could.  There was not much of a police force back then, so such crimes were rarely detected or prosecuted.

Crime dropped off, year by year, decade by decade, century by century, as America became more "civilized" and police forces more organized.  Crime reached a nadir in the late 1950s and then inexplicably rose - nearly doubling - from the 1970s through the 1990s and then inexplicably dropping off again.  There has been a slight rise since the pandemic, but nothing like the old days. This hasn't stopped Fox News from sensationalizing crimes and claiming there is an epidemic of crime.

Like I said, fear of prosecution keeps a lot of citizens in line.  Remove that fear, and many people will commit crimes.  In the 1970's, it wasn't unusual to see cars stripped down to the chassis, sitting on their frames, on city streets of New York.  I recall driving under the UN building in the early 1980's and seeing a late model Ford LTD wagon, on its roof in the median. The thieves had no jack, I guess, and found it easier to just roll over the car to remove the wheels.

"Broken Window Policing" has its roots from back then. The city, on the brink of bankruptcy, had few resources to combat crime or tow away stolen and stripped cars.  So people got the idea you could get away with this - ordinary people.  I recall an article from New York magazine of that era, where they left a used car in a fairly middle-class neighborhood and planted a hidden camera to see what happened. It was stripped, of course, and what was surprising was that the criminals who looted the car were not gang-bangers from Harlem but ordinary folks from the neighborhood. One photo caught a businessman in a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase in one hand, and the rear seat cushion of the car in question, in the other.  Hey, everyone else is getting something out of this, why not me?

Some argue that the cumulative effects of tetra-ethyl lead in gasoline lead to the crime wave. Others, the burgeoning drug epidemic, particularly the crack epidemic, of the era.  Still others claim it was lax enforcement, over-burdened police and prosecutors and "soft on crime" judges.  New laws were passed, such as the "three strikes and you're out" law - which allowed prosecutors to get long sentences for habitual criminals.

And crime dropped.  Some say it was get-tough-on-crime laws that lead to the decrease in crime rates.  Others point to demographics - the aging of America.  Still others to the decrease in lead exposure, or decreased drug use among the young.  Frankly, I think it is a combination of all of these, to some extent.  But the bottom line is, a criminal in jail isn't committing crimes.  And if you lock up a young criminal until he is an old man, he isn't likely to commit crimes as an oldster.

Some have argued the "three strikes" laws are unfair, and some States have repealed them. Opponents argue that some poor slob who "just stole a loaf of bread to feed his family!" is unjustly incarcerated for decades.  But if you scratch the surface of these stories, the "loaf of bread" was a hijacked bread truck, and the perpetrator, while having a number of children by different women, hasn't visited any of them or provided as much as a slice of bread to them, either.  And bear in mind, that if he was convicted of three crimes, odds are, he is responsible for a dozen or more - perhaps dozens.  I don't lose any sleep over the three strikes law, mostly because I don't commit crimes - certainly not three felonies!

In some urban areas, certain types of crime have skyrocketed. In LA and San Francisco, people leave the trunks or tailgates of their cars open to deter smash-and-grab thieves, who will do hundreds of dollars of damage to a car, to steal tens of dollars of goods stored in the trunk.  The Police, hounded on all sides for various high-profile cases of abuse, are "quiet quitting" and doing the minimum to investigate and prosecute "mere property crimes" which are inevitably blamed on the victim (for having the audacity to have a job and try to own things).  Ditto for "porch pirates" who are rarely caught or prosecuted, even when caught on a doorbell camera.

In New York and some other cities, it is the "knockout game" which, unlike smash-and-grab crimes on the West Coast, provides no profit to the perpetrator.  Kids in gangs punch people on the back of the head (or the front) trying to "knock them out" which they often do, leading to head injuries and even death, as the victim hits the pavement.  Again, it seems people are getting away with this and thus it proliferates.  Steve Buscemi is the latest victim of this trend - a crime with no rhyme or reason.

It should be noted that many of these "knock-out" crimes are racially motivated - aimed against Asians, often perpetrated by crazy homeless people.  Homelessness, which is a drug and mental health problem - and not an economic one - is another reason for the uptick in crime in recent years.

While these crimes are horrific and concerning (and garnering a lot of press) they do no reflect an alarming increase in the crime rate as touted by the right-wing press.  Nevertheless, they should be vigorously prosecuted.  I believe that some police forces, feeling embattled by the "defund the police" (a nonsense slogan if there ever was one) movement, are taking hands-off approach to a lot of minor (and major) crimes as a means of rallying support from voters - who will vote for "get tough on crime" politicians as a result.  If so, this is a particularly evil thing to do.

The recent, albeit mild (compared to the past) rise in crime can't be attributed to lead in gasoline as we took that out in the early 1970s.  Demographics are not in play, either, as the nation has aged further and the younger generation is smaller than in the past.  It would seem that lack of enforcement and the "let everyone out of jail" movement may be to blame, instead.

Some on the left like to argue that crime is caused by economic conditions - that poverty breeds crime and people from disadvantaged backgrounds "can't help it" and should be treated leniently as a result.  The problem with this argument is that it is a slap in the face to those from the same or similar backgrounds, who don't commit crimes and work hard (and often suffer from the acts of criminals).  The young man accused of assault and battery is painted as the victim of a difficult childhood - and should be excused for his actions.  But what of his brother who experienced the same privation and yet declined the life of criminality and violence?  How is that fair to him?

The reality of crime is that the victims of crime are often from the same social class and neighborhood as the criminal.  Whites fear black-on-white crime, but the reality is, blacks victimize more blacks than anyone else.  I suspect the same is true for whites - particularly with financial crimes.  It is like violence against Muslims.  As a Muslim, you are far more likely to be killed by a fellow Muslim (from a different sect, e.g., Sunni versus Shi'ite) than by a US-made reaper drone.

All that being said, it is an election year, and I recently received a "survey" online asking me about my opinions about various local and national politicians as well as issues.  One of them was about "getting tough on crime" versus "addressing the root causes of crime" - you could see where they were going with this.

In other words, they've turned this into a political football.  Republicans welcome an increase in crime as a means of getting elected.  The "tough on crime" stance is what got both Nixon and Reagan into office (both of whom today would be called "RINOs" by the Maga-set).  It is a formula that works.  Like I said, it seems the police are complicit in this, particularly in larger cities, by taking a more laid-back approach.  But some prosecutors are making things a lot worse by trying out crackpot theories which result in revolving-door justice.  Criminals are released without bail (or much reduced bail) on the grounds it is more "fair" to the poor.  And maybe that is true, but it also means that a criminal need only plead poverty to be let out.  Time to put those crackpot theories to rest - the result in more crime.

And they lose elections as well.