Locked Up: Crime and Punishment in America

Photograph Source: Andy Blackledge – CC BY 2.0

If there seems to be some truth to the popular notion of recent years that ‘everything has changed’, however it is also seems a truism that some things never change. If the Trump presidency and the COVID pandemic produced new ripple effects across politics and the economy, they also resurfaced age-old arguments about crime, violence, and policing in American society. The new iterations were captured in phrases such as ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘American Carnage’, and ‘Defund the Police.’ Step back a few years and there was the ‘Ferguson Effect.’

Crime certainly went up during the COVID pandemic. Indeed, the number of homicides spiked almost 30 percent in 2020, the largest year-over-year increase since 1960 when formal crime stats started to be collected. 2021 saw a smaller increase but also included twelve cities, including Philadelphia, Austin, Indianapolis, and Portland breaking their annual homicide records.

In a way crime is arguably the toughest domestic issue in politics. Any new low in crime instantly transforms from social achievement into public expectation. It is true, as many liberals have pointed out, that the recent spike has come on the heels of a long drop in crime that started in the early 1990s after a long period of mostly rising crime that began in the late-1960s. It is also that thus far the current crime spike still pales in comparison to the peak rates of that period.  Yet it is equally true is that public fear of rising crime is perfectly legitimate and attempts to minimize public fear in a road to nowhere.

Debates about the current crime spike revolve around the usual factors such as guns and policing, as well as new factors such as bail reform laws. All these explanations contain plausible arguments. The Wall Street Journal reported on August 4th that more guns from states with looser gun laws were making their way to states with tougher guns laws. Bail laws were changed in localities that are experiencing increased crime. The share of murders that result in an arrest or identification dropped to 54 percent in 2020 from about 70 percent in the 1980s, suggesting an increased lack of trust in police. Yet it is well worth noting that while cities have gotten almost all the attention, crime took off everywhere. Rural America saw a 25 percent increase in homicides. Of course, hanging over all this was the social disruption of the pandemic itself.

However stepping back from all recent developments and we come to the fact that the U.S. has always had more crime than the developed countries to which it is compared. And not only crime. Even before the pandemic life expectancy in the U.S. had an unprecedented modern decline in 2015 and 2016. Americans of every income level are unusually likely to die from cars accidents and drugs as well as guns. Obviously, with around 400 million guns in the civilian population, gun access in the U.S. is exceptional. Broadly speaking, states with weaker gun laws see higher rates of deaths from guns, whether murders or suicides, than states with tighter laws. But it’s also true the vast majority of crimes involving guns are committed by illegally possessed guns, not guns legally owned. The decline in crime that started in the early 1990s took place amidst the country’s gun laws, particularly at the state level, becoming more permissive, not less.

Then there is the fact that violence of all sorts, from stabbings to arson, are more common in the U.S. than other first world countries. One may take this a few different ways. It can be argued, for a variety of reasons, that Europe for instance is not a correct comparison to the U.S. Others will argue cultural reasons, often stemming from the ‘frontier’ and the ‘old west’ mythology. Yet simply pointing to ‘culture’ is often just a simple copout.

Related to crime is incarceration. Here too the U.S. is quite exceptional. Actually the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and second historically only to the Soviet Union under Stalin.  Black men born between 1965 and 1969 have been more likely to end up in prison than graduate college. The standard progressive narrative about this is that the incarceration rate stems from prison sentences due to nonviolent drug crimes and that system morphs into a system of racist social control. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has been the go to source for that point of view.

There is a major hole in this account: only roughly 20-25 percent of U.S. prisoners are in jail on drug charges. If this was whittled down to only the non-repeat, nonviolent user who wasn’t involved in drug dealing, the number is only four percent. Of course, even that number is too high but it is important to note more than half of people in prisoners have been convicted or charged with violent offenses (41 percent) or property crimes (17 percent). Meaning even if prison doors flew open for all those inside for drug charges, which is perfectly reasonable, the U.S. would still have the world’s highest prison population.

While federal policy gets most of the limelight, such as the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, most prisoners in the U.S., 88 percent, are in state and local prisons.  So far from law-and-order being the exclusive privy of Republicans running demagogic national campaigns with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, most elected officials involved with crime laws are local. States and localities employ the great majority of police officers and spend the about 80 percent of the total money that goes to courts, prisons, and police.

As William J. Shultz describes in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, in the generation prior to the very punitive turn criminal justice took in the later stages of the 20th century there was a generation long lenient turn where prisoner per homicide plummeted 60 percent nationwide. Just before it began to rise, in the early 1970s the U.S. imprisonment rate was fewer than 100 per 100,000. Before 1980 the country’s record was 137. This began to shift in the 1970s. When Reagan took office in 1980 the total prison population was 329,000. By the time he left office eight years later the population practically doubled to 627,000.

Again this was a reaction to something real. Crime exploded in the 1960s. From 1960 to 1980 the homicide rate more than doubled to 10.7 per 100,000. Along with this the property crime rate trebled and the overall violent crime roughly quintupled during the course of the wave. The incarceration rate steadily increased reaching 1000 in 2008 then falling from there to a still astronomical 810 in 2019. While plenty of politicians no doubt used implicit and outright explicit racial dog whistles to get elected, the greatest punitive policies were passed in the 1990s, not in response to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Contrary to popular belief the overall crackdown had the support of much of the African American community. As Michael Javen Fortner’s Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment and James Forman Jr.’s Locking up our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America explain, when it came to issues such as drug legalization and harsher prison sentences local black communities, living amidst a storm of rising crime and violence, supported law-and-order policies.

What accounted for the sharp rise in crime?  An argument brilliantly flushed out by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani in their 2019 essay for Catalyst titled ‘The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration’ explains that the roots of the crime wave are in the unique character of the U.S. agrarian transition. Namely, the U.S. industrialized without a large domestic rural-to-urban migration. Where in countries like Britain and Germany it was the displaced peasantry that provided the army of industrial workers, in the U.S. it was actually the same surplus of European peasants who as immigrants provided the labor for industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries while small farming continued to grow in the U.S. into the 20th century.

American industry began to absorb its rural interior during World War I then further when the first restrictions of European immigration went into effect in 1924. Obviously the cheapest source of domestic labor, and closest equivalent to a peasantry, were African-American sharecroppers. The initial wave of the Great Migration led to the collapse of sharecropping in the South and thereby to the second and larger wave in the 1940s and 1950s. The collapse of farming employment in the South was huge: in 1910 almost half of working age black men in the U.S. were employed in agriculture. In 1960, it was less than 8 percent.

As Clegg and Usmani point out, the urban labor markets these migrants stepped into couldn’t replace these jobs. Instead it was a period of government sponsored suburbanization, deindustrialization, and capital flight from cities. As Thomas J. Sugrue describes in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, in cities like Detroit deindustrialization actually began in the 1950s as industry moved to the Sunbelt. It was large cities that saw the largest increase in violence.

A prime example of capital flight can be seen in the Bronx. Starting with the Cross Bronx Expressway, built between 1948 and 1963, perhaps the most destructive urban project of Robert Moses’ gruesome career, carving a wedge through a dozen neighborhoods and built mainly to bring traffic through the Bronx to the Westchester suburbs rather than into the Bronx, the area was dotted with highways. The Major Deegan Expressway, the Sheridan, the Sawmill, the Bruckner, all this building displaced thousands of residents and tore through commercial streets. The overall effect was that from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s Nassau County, a single suburban county on Long Island received more home loans than all of New York City combined (162,669 to 146,691). Next store Suffolk County received 76,543 loans while the Bronx got 9927. Westchester received nearly three times that amount (29,660). The Bronx was soon a symbol of burnt out urban decay.

All of this, combined with the sheer size of the Boomer generation, which meant more young men exposed to these elements, was particularly disastrous for the black working class nationally. Around a quarter of low-skilled black men between the ages of eighteen and fifty were neither in employment nor school in 1960 and this number would rise over the next decade. Not that the white working class was unaffected- during the punitive turn the white incarceration rate increased just as rapidly as the black rate.

This leads to the other side of Clegg and Usmani’s argument, namely the general weakness of the American working class, partly due to racial and geographical divisions, with much of the white working class moving to the suburbs, which to some extent stem from this period and persist to this day. The inability of the working class, partly due to racial and geographical divisions, to demand and enact social reforms that addressed crime at its roots at the federal level, the only level from where it is truly possible to address it, meant that individual states were left to fight violence on the cheap. Much is made about the financial cost of incarceration yet given that this cost is only spent on the small percentage of the population in prison it is significantly less than universal social programs that would have helped reduce the prison population in the first place. A study earlier this year in the journal PLOS ONE found that arrests significantly declined in the three years after the Affordable Care Act was passed, with a 19-29 percent decrease in violence-related arrests in counties that expanded Medicaid eligibility. The U.S. has the lowest ratio of social spending to punitive spending as a share of GDP of any developed country.

Crime would start its long decline in the early 1990s. The reasons for the declined are varied and debated: the crack epidemic burning out, the ageing of the Boomer population, the rise of statistical policing. In his treatise on New York: The City That Became Safe, Frankin E. Zimring found that roughly 50 percent of New York’s crime drop, the largest and longest of any American city, cannot be conclusively accounted for by any particular cause.

It is perhaps likely that some of the unique mid-century conditions mean that subsequent increases in crime will not match the previous high. However, in other respects, some conditions persist. There is still a shoddy welfare state, capital flight, and deindustrialization. As the disruption of the pandemic started crime rising the same solutions are again bubbling to the surface. Eric Adams was elected mayor of New York largely on a law-and-order platform. Joe Biden is calling on spending $13 billion to hire 100,000 more police officers over the next five years. The House of Representatives recently passed, with a large majority, a bill that would give $60 million a year for five years to local police budgets that are already the largest in the world. ‘Defunding the Police’ was never seriously put in practice but efforts to shift even some funding from police budgets to social programs have hit a wall. Without a resurgence of resistance from below we could be facing yet another generation locked up.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).