<< BreakPoint Daily Commentary

We Need Better Experts: Crime and Poverty

In October 2008, a New York Times headline read “Keeping Wary Eye on Crime as Economy Sinks.” In it, readers were told that New Yorkers, when they weren’t pondering the “the fate of their 401(k)’s,” were wondering if crime would “return with a vengeance.”

As it turns out, while New Yorkers still have plenty to ponder, an exploding crime rate isn’t one of them. Two and a half years after it warned readers about a recession-driven rise in crime, The Times told them that the “Steady Decline in Crime Baffles Experts.”

It pointed out that “the number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years.” It noted that “in all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States.”

Even in cities, like New York, that experienced a rise in crime rates, “data from the past few months suggest the city’s upward trend may have slowed or stopped.” According to The Times, it was “baffling” because “it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.”

What’s really baffling is that anyone should be baffled by the decline. For years at Prison Fellowship we’ve watched this happen. Liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen even called The Times’ surprise evidence of “a remarkable tenacity to cling to shopworn and disproved dogma.”

That shopworn and disproved dogma is simply this: that environmental factors like poverty and racism cause crime.

As Cohen noted, the crime was lower in the Great Depression than during the “Roaring Twenties.” Cohen could have also cited eminent scholar James Q. Wilson, who has shown conclusively that crime has decreased during economic down times. Cohen did cite Berkeley professor Neil Gilbert’s findings that recessions are “periods of social conservatism.”  And as I’ve said for years, hard economic times cause people to lean on each other, especially their families. This, in turn, reinforces moral and social norms.

The other problem with the “shopworn and disproved dogma” is that it gets the matter backwards: as Cohen aptly put it, “Crime is not committed by good people who lose their jobs. It is committed by criminals who never had a real job in the first place.”

Stated plainly, crime is a moral and cultural problem. Until we understand this (which we’ve seen close-up at Prison Fellowship) we will never address the problem in a way that makes a difference. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful anti-crime programs, like the “broken windows” approach to policing in 1990s New York, ignored so-called “root causes” and addressed the cultural component.

Nor is it a coincidence that successful rehabilitation programs, like Prison Fellowship’s IFI, take seriously psychologist Stanton Samenow’s maxim that the key to solving crime is the conversion of the wrongdoer to a more responsible lifestyle.

That’s not to say that finding ex-offenders job isn’t important -- it’s very important. But first you have to help him become the kind of person who can be successful in the workplace, which few of them were, sadly, before entering prison.

None of this should baffle anyone, and if it does, well, we need new and better “experts.”

This article published on June 14, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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