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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 1999 /11 Tishrei, 5760

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Along with good cops, we need a better probation system -- AMERICANS HAVE HAD some terrible shocks recently from random shooting deaths, such as the ones in Littleton, Colo., but they generally live their lives and go about their business with less anxiety, because crime has fallen dramatically in the past seven years. Yet this is no time for complacency. We must understand why crime is down so that we can accelerate the trend, and we cannot forget that we are still plagued with more violent crime than any other industrialized country, with a rate that is more than three times as high as it was in 1961. The murder rate, for that matter, is five times higher than it was 100 years ago.

The first question that needs review is: Are we freer of crime because we put more people in prison than any other country, even Communist China? Over the past two decades, the number of inmates in American prisons has more than tripled, to upward of 1.8 million. The prison population has increased eightfold in California and Texas. Building jails is a boom business, and we now spend $24 billion just to cover the care and feeding of the 1.2 million prisoners who are serving sentences–many of them mandatory–for nonviolent, and not particularly serious, crimes. There is no clear evidence that the vast expenditures on these prisoners have paid off. New York, for example, has enjoyed a much larger percentage drop in homicides than California, despite the fact that California locks up nine times as many people.

Preventive medicine. It is reassuring that violent criminals are off the streets. But there are two serious side effects of crowding prisons with nonviolent offenders. They take space better reserved for hardened criminals, and they often get converted by their prison experiences into social misfits with high rates of recidivism. So the second question is: Would the money to combat crime, now spent primarily on prisons, be better spent on supporting law enforcement and the treatment of drug addicts who play such a large part in crime?

There can be no doubt that better policing has had a real impact on crime. The notion is no longer tenable that crime is so connected to root causes–from family breakdown to economic hardship–that cops are powerless to deal with it. The breakthrough was led by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, a believer in "community policing." The police were reorganized, retrained, and put on the streets. Precinct commanders and street officers were given the freedom to make decisions and were held accountable for them. The police began to dismantle the infrastructure of crime–illegal guns, drug marts, fencing operations, chop shops–and refused to tolerate even moderate infractions of laws, such as broken windows and graffiti, that suggest disorder and breed fear and crime. Former NYPD Chief William Bratton quoted a cop's message to the criminal population of New York: "It's not your street." New York City has been transformed. Its murder rate has been cut by about 70 percent since 1993, and total felonies have fallen by a half.

Another approach would be to increase investment in probation and parole, on which we spend next to nothing. It's a way of punishing criminals without paying their room and board. Probation can be an effective procedure for monitoring, controlling, and rehabilitating prisoners and punishing them swiftly if they get out of line. But it won't work unless we reduce the caseloads per probation officer, increase drug testing, and use electronic location devices to keep closer track of the offenders.

States such as Michigan have found that this kind of intensive supervision has reduced criminal violence faster, more extensively, and at a much lower cost.

We should not stint on the funding we need to preserve the safety of our citizens. We have to keep up the war on crime–on all fronts. But to maintain the rate of decline, we need to re-examine where we put our dollars. Investing in police and probation are the best anticrime measures.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Mortimer Zuckerman