“Tough” is not the solution to crime and poverty

Eugene Volokh’s post last night (“Crime and Poverty“) links approvingly to “A Real Story of Two Americas” by Doug Kern at Tech Central and discusses the link between poverty and crime. Unfortunately, both Doug Kern and Eugene Volokh buy into the “we can solve the problem if we just indiscriminately put more people in jail longer” solution (only a slight exaggeration).

“We need more: more prosecutors, more public defenders, more judges, more investigators, and more local jail space, to ensure that more criminals learn early and often that their crimes will be justly punished.”


“If you want to help the poor, work to reduce crime — which in large part (though not entirely) means arrest, prosecute, incapacitate, and thus deter criminals.” [At least Eugene tempers his statement slightly]

These statements are not new. They have been part of the standard “tough on crime” repertoire for decades. And the result? While the United States has 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population. From the most recent DOJ report:

  • The nation’s prisons and jails held 2,078,570 men and women on June 30, 2003, an increase of 57,600 more inmates than state, local and federal officials held on the same date a year earlier
  • From July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003, the number of state and federal prisoners grew by more than 2.9 percent, the largest increase in four years. The federal system increased by 5.4 percent, and state prisoners increased by 2.6 percent.
  • An estimated 12 percent of all black males in their twenties were in jails or prisons last June 30, as were an estimated 3.7 percent of Hispanic males and 1.6 percent of white males in that age group. Sixty-eight percent of prison and jail inmates were members of racial or ethnic minority groups.

The problem is that the blind “tough on crime” philosophy just doesn’t work, particularly as it relates to crime and poverty. What is needed is a “smart on crime” philosophy. Not just “more prosecutors, more public defenders, more judges, more investigators, and more local jail space” (we’ve already been doing that) but rather a serious look at how we use our criminal justice resources and the actual results of those efforts.
The biggest problem in being “tough on crime” instead of ‘smart on crime’ is in the drug war – particularly since illegality and increased enforcement in that area actually makes crime more profitable.
Let’s say you arrest a drug dealer in a poor area. This doesn’t reduce the availability of drugs – it creates a high paying job opening (in a neighborhood where McDonald’s jobs aren’t even available). You can be sure that someone will step in. Dealer two gets arrested and dealer three steps up (if lots of dealers get arrested, the price/profits increase until more can step in). Eventually these dealers are released from prison. They’re back in the community with a history that makes crime their best option for making a living. Multiple families have been disrupted, likely putting them on government assistance, and the police have been running around getting glamorous drug busts (and showing off their seizures as if there’s a finite pool of drugs) instead of investigating who stole the bicycles in Doug Kern’s story.
That is our current “tough on crime” approach.
Just arresting more people and increasing sentences cannot work when it comes to the drug war. People want drugs (maybe even more so when beset by poverty) and resulting profits insure that drugs will be supplied, no matter how many people you jail for how long.
Of course, my solution is a combination of legalization and regulation, which would eliminate the black-market profits that lure many of the poor (plus gangs, etc.) into criminal activity. That solution is coming, but not for some time.
In the meantime, the answer is not “more” but “smarter.” One very imperfect option (but smarter than current approaches) is to “decriminalize” (through well-commmunicated law enforcement policy) non-violent adult possession and sale of drugs. Send the message that, as long as you’re discreet, we won’t bother your drug activities. However, if violence or theft is involved, or sale to minors, we’ll use all our resources to come after you (and then actually focus those resources that way). That’s when getting tough is smart – when it provides a clear and attractive option.
Note: this is different than “enhanced” sentencing (like for having a gun while selling drugs or selling to children) – the difference in 5 or 10 year sentences is often too abstract to criminals (and even our lawmakers can’t keep up with all the sentencing laws) compared to the difference between law enforcement coming after you or not coming after you (a much more effective incentive).
Poverty and Crime together provide a complex equation, but the drug war is a huge factor, and our current “tough on drugs/crime” approach is flawed, expensive, and demonstratively ineffective.

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