Commentary: Dear Beth: When it comes to crime ...
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2011 - (Reader Beth von Behren commented on a recent column in which I suggested that increased incarceration has resulted in decreased crime. She wanted to know if I felt that legalized abortion had also reduced the crime rate and questioned the wisdom of incarcerating nonviolent offenders.)
I write in response to the comment you posted regarding my June 9 column about the crime rate. Let me begin by thanking you for taking the time to comment and for the kind words you shared. Allow me to reciprocate in the latter regard by mentioning that I found your thoughts to be well-articulated and insightful.
I enjoy hearing from readers but normally refrain from answering their remarks. I get my say when I write the piece and feel that it's only fair that readers have a chance to tell me I'm full of crap without enduring tit-for-tat responses from the author. However, you raised a couple of germane issues that merit further discussion, so please consider this column an exception to that rule.
The theory that legalized abortion is largely responsible for the declining crime rate was popularized by economist Steven Levitt in "Freakonomics." The notion is elegant in its simplicity: Abortions terminate unwanted pregnancies. When allowed to come to term, such pregnancies produce unwanted children who are more likely to engage in criminal behavior than are their counterparts raised in nurturing households. Hence, more abortion = less crime.
Levitt documents his quease-inducing hypothesis persuasively. The national crime rate began to drop 17 years after Roe v Wade, or about the time that the first cohort of aborted children would have entered their prime crime years. Five states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington) legalized abortion before Roe. The crime rates in those states declined earlier than in the rest of the country. The states with the highest incidence of abortion experienced greatest decrease in crime.
Given that statistical analysis, it's as difficult to deny the theorized causal link as it is not to be troubled by its eugenic implications. But to answer your question, Beth, yes I do believe that the ready availability of abortion is partially responsible for falling crime rates.
That observation, however, tells us nothing about what to do with the people who somehow managed to be born and are now committing crimes. Aborted souls may be beyond the jurisdiction of the criminal courts, but convicted felons clearly are not -- which brings us to your second point.
There are currently more than 2 million people in American prisons and jails. Some view that statistic as an alarming indictment of our criminal justice system. Others -- like myself -- find it alarming that we have so many criminals. In either event, the number represents well under 1 percent of the total population.
A fashionable criticism of this state of affairs is that we are wasting scarce resources by jailing nonviolent offenders, especially drug users. Before you make up your mind on this issue, Beth, I'd like you to consider two points. One concerns the way in which we classify offenders; the other pertains to the actual cost of crime.
Although criminals sometimes have a distinctive M.O., crime is not a union job. Yesterday's common thief can be today's burglar or tomorrow's stick-up man. We define a criminal by the offense for which he was most recently convicted. Because most convictions are the result of plea bargains, these classifications can be misleading. The violent crime of robbery, for instance, may be negotiated into the nonviolent offense of stealing from a person, thus rehabilitating the offender by a fiat of semantics.
Drug users are the poster children of bleeding hearts who argue that these souls need treatment, not punishment. Two awkward facts tend to refute that notion: The cure rate for addiction is dismal at best and users steal to support their habit.
A heroin addict is not a guy who wants to party but is too lazy to work. The junkie steals for the same reason you get vaccinated -- he doesn't want to get sick. Imagine a severe case of the flu: the muscle ache, joint pain, throbbing head and most of all the nausea -- the overwhelming, all-consuming, sicker-than-a-dog nausea. That's what a day without junk is like for a heavy user. He doesn't necessarily want to hurt you, but given the alternative, he'll do whatever it takes to get his fix. He can't possibly support a several hundred dollar a day drug habit by honest labor, so he becomes a one-man crime wave.
And at what cost to the rest of us? The city of Detroit has been virtually decimated by narcotics use and the crime it spawns. Some now contemplate converting broad stretches of the inner city into farmland. Farmland! What price tag do we put on the loss of a major American city?
Without discounting the humane values of compassion and empathy, the best argument for incarceration is that it works. Every day the offender is confined is another day that he is unable to ply his trade. Compared to the true cost of crime, I would argue that prison is a bargain.
Thanks for reading,
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.