The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America


Katherine Beckett & Theodore Sasson

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  • Dedication

    For our newly arrived children, AnnaRose Beckett-Herbert and Asher Grant-Sasson


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    Over the past 35 years, crime has played an increasingly pivotal role in U.S. politics and culture. Many politicians go to great lengths to define themselves as tough on criminals and drug addicts. Journalists cover crime more extensively than any other issue. Television networks launch new “reality-based” shows that glamorize law enforcement and blur the line between entertainment and news. And victims' rights activists clamor for more aggressive policing and harsher penalties. In this context, lawmakers have adopted a wide range of anticrime policies aimed at “getting tough” on offenders. As a result of these policies, the rate of incarceration in the United States is now the highest in the world, and one out of three young black males is under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

    Throughout this period, most criminologists have devoted their attention to investigating the causes of crime and analyzing criminal justice processes. At the margins of the discipline, however, a growing number of scholars have pursued a different line of inquiry, one that focuses on the role of the crime issue in U.S. politics and culture and the way in which the construction (or framing) of the crime issue in these spheres has affected the policy-making process. In spite of widespread interest in these issues, almost none of this new work is discussed in standard sociology, criminology, and criminal justice texts.

    The Politics of Injustice is the first book to communicate this new research to nonspecialists and specialists alike. In it, we examine crime as a political and cultural issue, as well as the policies that have resulted in the dramatic expansion of the penal system. In so doing, we draw on a wide range of scholarship, including research on crime, its representation in political discourse and the mass media, public opinion, crime-related activism, and public policy. Our review of these literatures is thorough yet focused on the development of our central argument: The punitive turn in crime policy is not primarily the result of a worsening crime problem or an increasingly fearful and vengeful public. Rather, above all else, the war on crime and drugs is the consequence of political efforts to shift perceptions of and policy regarding a variety of social problems—including crime, addiction, and poverty—toward harsher, more repressive solutions.

    We hope the book will provide readers with a better understanding of the nature of crime and punishment in the United States, as well as the cultural and political contexts in which they occur. We further hope that the new material on activism and reform will inspire convinced readers to join the struggle for a more just and effective approach to crime.

    Acknowledgments for the Second Edition

    The book reflects our efforts over several years, together and separately, to understand the political and cultural determinants of crime policy. Parts of Chapter 4 appeared in Katherine's Making Crime Pay (1997). Parts of Chapter 5 originally appeared in our contribution to The New War on Drugs, edited by Eric Jensen and Jurg Gerber (Beckett & Sasson, 1998). Material borrowed from these earlier publications has been revised and updated.

    We would like to thank Jerry Westby, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Sage/Pine Forge Press, for encouraging the second edition of the book and shepherding it to completion. We would also like to thank Liann Lech for her expert copyediting and Erik Carleton for research assistance.

    We are grateful to the following individuals for reviewing the first and second editions of the manuscript: Gray Cavender, Vincent F. Sacco, Raymond Surette, David Forde, Barbara Belbot, Rebecca Petersen, Roland Chilton, Karen Heimer, Jim Thomas.

    Last, but always first and foremost, we want to thank our partners, Steve Herbert and Deborah Grant, for their intellectual and emotional support. This project would not have been possible without it.

  • Notes

    1. The quotations from Harold Richard and Derrick Ross are verbatim from this article; the rest of Sabrina's story is paraphrased.

    2. For white males, the lifetime likelihood of incarceration is 4.4%.

    3. In 2001, in addition to those serving time in state and federal prisons, 73,000 women were locked away in local jails. Thus, the total number of women behind bars in that year was more than 167,000 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002a).

    1. Neither the NCVS nor the UCR measures the kinds of crimes that are committed by the rich or powerful, such as embezzlement, fraud, violations of health and safety regulations, and so forth.

    2. The percentage of victims of violent crime who reported their victimization to the police increased from 44.2% in 1978 to 49.8% in 1992. See McCord (1997).

    3. For a review of this literature, see O'Brien (1996). Although most agree that homicide statistics are fairly reliable, there are a significant number of missing persons whose fate is never determined, and some unknown number of these people are undoubtedly murder victims (Windelsham, 1998).

    4. However, some scholars still use the UCR data to support their argument that crime—especially violent crime—is far more common today than in previous decades. See especially Currie (1998).

    5. See Kurki (1997), p. 4. Of the five countries that participated in all three surveys administered since 1988, only the United States shows consistent decreases in the crime rate.

    6. See Currie (1998) for a critique of this argument.

    1. In 2001, average black family income was 62% of average white family income; average Hispanic family income was 64%. U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical Income Tables-Families.”

    2. James Gilligan (1996), however, provides a rather compelling account of the unmediated role of relative deprivation in the production of violence.

    3. For an explication of this type of approach, see Sampson (1997), pp. 31–77.

    4. For a discussion of the relevance of Shaw and McKay's work for contemporary research, see Sampson and Wilson (1995).

    5. Sullivan defines high poverty areas as neighborhoods in which at least 30% of residents are poor.

    6. Significantly, Sampson found that the percentage of households headed by a female was also significantly related to serious crime among whites.

    7. Because segregation concentrates disadvantage, shifts in black poverty rates comparable with those observed during the 1970s have the power to transform the socioeconomic character of poor black neighborhoods very rapidly and dramatically, changing a low-income black community from a place where welfare-dependent, female-headed families are a minority to one where they are the norm, producing high rates of crime, property abandonment, mortality and educational failure. (Massey, 1990, p. 329)

    8. The authors point out that New York City and Washington, DC, have larger-than-average drug industries. They estimate that, nationwide, drug-related homicides comprise 10% to 25% of all homicides (p. 144).

    9. “Dissed” as in “disrespected.”

    1. Civil rights activists did break southern state laws, but they did so to draw attention to the unconstitutionality of those laws. Thus, it is not clear that these civil rights tactics can be described accurately as “criminal,” or even as “civil disobedience.”

    2. Quoted in Baker (1983), p. 245. On the stump, Wallace often concluded with the more baldly racist formulation, “[He] didn't get any watermelon to eat when he was 10 years old” (quoted in Carter, 1995, p. 313).

    3. On the “culture of poverty,” see Lewis (1969).

    4. Katz and others show that the focus on the alleged misbehaviors of the poor has been central to their reconstruction as an undeserving underclass. See also Gans (1995); Morris (1994); and Schram (1995).

    5. Nixon, no less than his strategists, understood the significance of symbolic communication. Looking ahead to the 1972 campaign, he instructed his aides to “scrape away all the crap and just pick three issues that will give us a sharp image.” The aides “shouldn't be concerned if it is something we will actually accomplish. … Rather, we should look in terms of how we create issues. We need an enemy” (Carter, 1995, p. 398).

    6. See also Wright (1985), pp. 35–37, for a discussion of other innovative techniques used by the Nixon administration to create the impression that the rate of crime was decreasing.

    7. As Zimring and Hawkins point out, the traditional allocation of crime control responsibilities “is one in which the federal government plays a distant

    secondary role to that of the states and local governments.” But because the Harrison Narcotics Act established federal responsibility for the enforcement of narcotics laws, the federal government has played an important role in drug control throughout the 20th century (see Zimring & Hawkins, 1992, pp. 160–161). Heymann and Moore also note that the regulation of alcohol and other drugs has played an important role in expanding the scope of federal criminal jurisdiction (Heymann & Moore, 1996, p. 105).

    8. The adoption of this line of reasoning helps to account for the Nixon administration's somewhat surprising support for methadone maintenance programs, aimed largely at reducing the likelihood that addicts would steal to finance their habit.

    9. In fact, the resources of federal drug enforcement agencies increased from $65 million to $719 million between 1969 and 1975 (Baum, 1996, p. 75).

    10. Only when faced with “exigent circumstances”—a situation in which a suspect may have concealed a weapon or been able to easily destroy evidence—were law enforcement agents permitted to seize evidence without a warrant (Davey, 1995).

    11. However, Bertram et al. (1996) point out that although Presidents Ford, Carter, and (later) Clinton did not emphasize the crime and drug issues, neither did they attempt to reverse the expansion of the criminal justice system or issue any fundamental challenge to the logic of the wars on crime and drugs. Drug law enforcement budgets, for example, continued to increase and reached $855 million by 1980 (Bertram et al., 1996, p. 110). The fact that criminal justice institutions continued to expand during these times of relative political quiet, they argue, reveals the ability of those bureaucracies with law enforcement responsibilities to influence the political agenda:

    When Presidents such as Nixon, Reagan and Bush wanted to escalate drug enforcement, this drug control apparatus provided them with a firm basis and allies. … But even during times of relative calm … the drug control bureaucracy has exerted pressures to sustain and even expand the drug war. (Bertram et al., 1996, p. 126)

    12. For a review of this literature, see Hannon and DeFronzo (1998).

    13. For an extended discussion of the “crack panic” of 1986, see Reinarman and Levine (1989) and Beckett and Sasson (1997).

    14. According to one study, despite the fact that assault weapons are used in only a fraction of all gun murders, the Crime Bill's ban on these weapons contributed to an estimated 6.7% decline in total gun murders between 1994 and 1995 (The Urban Institute, cited in Windelsham, 1998, p. 123).

    15. Windelsham further argues that ultimately, the Congressional Black Caucus's main accomplishment was to sustain funding for prevention efforts, minimal as it was.

    16. A copy of this unpublished survey may be obtained from the authors.

    17. For example, a Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that 39% of those polled trusted the Democrats to handle the crime problem; 32% had more faith in the Republicans. See Poveda (1994), p. 76.

    18. A small group of liberal Democrats in the Senate did propose an alternative package aimed at improving police training, abolishing mandatory sentencing statutes, and tightening gun restrictions. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus also criticized this proposed legislation, especially its rejection of the Racial Justice Act, which would have allowed defendants to use evidence of racial bias to challenge their death sentences. Neither of these efforts was ultimately successful.

    1. On crime coverage in Denver, Colorado, see Colomy and Greiner (n.d.); on Boston, Massachusetts, see Sasson (1998); on crime waves in general, see Fishman (1978).

    2. The local news study examined three stations in Chicago, Illinois, between December 1989 and May 1990 (see Entman, 1992). The network news study examined 30 days of coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC in 1990 (see Entman, 1994).

    3. For example, one study examined opinion columns published in six metropolitan newspapers from 1990 through 1991. The frame that attributed crime to failures of the criminal justice system was expressed in 55% of the columns. The frames that attributed crime to either poverty or family breakdown were each visible in about one third of the columns (see Sasson, 1995b). Studies of news weeklies report coverage that is even more one-sided in favor of the “faulty system” perspective (see Barlow, 1998; Elias, 1993).

    4. Indeed, Ericson et al. (1991) estimate that the proportion of news stories that focused on “deviance and control” was about 45% in newspapers, between 47% and 60% on television, and between 64% and 71% on the radio (pp. 239–242).

    5. Lichter and his colleagues base their findings on a random sample of 620 prime-time television shows broadcast between 1955 and 1986. Comparisons to real-world crime draw upon the highly problematic Uniform Crime Reports of the FBI (see Chapter 2). Estimates of real-world crime that draw upon victimization surveys are higher, but even when these data were used as points of comparison, the “television rate for violent crimes was fifteen times higher” (Lichter et al., 1994, p. 276).

    6. For example, roughly 1% of all felony arrests are rejected due to violations of the exclusionary rule (see Currie, 1985, pp. 66–67).

    7. Of the series NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Law and Order, the UCLA team comments as follows: “The three series … are

    commendable because they achieve a high level of grittiness and excitement without overemphasizing violence.”

    8. Reality-based police shows were popular in other countries before their introduction to the United States (see Cavender & Fishman, 1998).

    9. On voyeurism in relation to reality-based programs, see also Andersen (1995), pp. 174–210, and Donovan (1998).

    10. Several researchers have failed, in part or entirely, to replicate Carlson's findings (see Jeffres & Perloff, 1997).

    11. In these studies, “light viewers” are those who watch up to 2 hours per day of television (see Morgan & Signorielli, 1990).

    1. Copyright 1994, Time Inc. Reprinted by permission.

    2. For a discussion of the rationality of fear of crime, see Sparks (1992a).

    3. For general discussions of the public's propensity to name crime as the nation's most serious problem, see Chambliss (1994), Roberts and Stalans (1997), and Warr (1995).

    4. Because levels of public concern about crime and drugs vary with levels of elite political initiative on those issues, sorting out which side is leading and which is following is quite difficult. In this study, four case studies of month-by-month shifts in political initiative and public concern show that sudden drops in political attention to the crime and drug issues cannot be explained by prior shifts in levels of public concern but are followed by declining levels of public concern (see Beckett, 1994).

    5. On the crush of political and media attention to crime in 1993-1994, also see Poveda (1994).

    6. Participants in the focus group discussions were drawn from neighborhood crime watch groups. For a description of the sample and research methodology, see Sasson (1995b), especially Chapter 2.

    7. On individualism and self-reliance as core values in American political culture, see Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1985); Carbaugh (1988); de Tocqueville (1981); Gamson (1992); and Gans (1988).

    8. Zimring and Hawkins (1997) describe the consequences of “categorical contagion” in this way: “The fear generated by the kidnap and murder of Polly Klaas in California provokes long sentences for residential burglars because the burglar in the citizen's scenario has acquired the characteristics of Polly Klaas's killer” (pp. 12–13).

    9. See discussion in Chapter 5. News exposés on the failures of the justice system probably contribute to the public's tendency to overestimate rates of recidivism and underestimate the justice system's propensity to incarcerate (see Roberts, 1992, pp. 109–121).

    10. In a comparison between sentencing preferences of jurors and judges in Chicago, researchers found jurors more willing than judges to assign probation alone, or probation and jail, as alternatives to prison time (see Diamond &

    Stalans, 1989). For a thorough review of the evidence on the relative severity of the public versus the courts, see Roberts and Stalans (1997), pp. 210–212.

    11. For a more detailed discussion of popular slogans and catch-phrases as instances of media discourse, see Gamson (1992) and Sasson (1995b).

    12. The researchers performed multiple regression analyses on the survey data to test the possibility that the correlation between punitiveness and opposition to civil rights might be spurious, that is, a consequence of some third variable (such as region or political orientation) associated with both racial prejudice and punitiveness. The correlation, however, survived all statistical controls.

    13. “Crime prevention” in this case included “community education” and “youth programs.”

    14. Interestingly, this “social breakdown” perspective is also widespread in England; see Loader, Girling, and Sparks (1998).

    15. In response to the question, “Once people who commit crimes are in prison, which of the following do you think should be the most important goal of prison?” 48.4% chose “rehabilitation,” 14.6% chose “punishment,” and 33.1% chose “crime prevention/deterrence” (see Maguire & Pastore, 1997, Table 2.6).

    16. The national survey is cited in Ellsworth and Gross (1994). The statewide surveys, administered between 1985 and 1989, posed the following question: “Suppose convicted first-degree murderers in this state could be sentenced to life in prison without parole and also be required to work in prison for money that would go to the families of their victims. Would you prefer this as an alternative to the death penalty?” Evidence from these surveys also suggests that the public would be willing to accept parole of first-degree murderers after at least 25 years if an offender has fully met the restitution requirement (see Bowers, 1993).

    17. On the importance of symbolically communicating societal disapproval, see also Gaubatz (1995) and Kahan (1996).

    18. Black and white punitiveness do not necessarily stem from the same sources. One statistical analysis finds that black punitiveness correlates with fear of crime, whereas white punitiveness correlates with racial prejudice (see Cohn et al., 1991). On the slight convergence of black and white attitudes on crime control, see Secret and Johnson (1989).

    19. This is an expanded version of the transcript of the same session found in Sasson (1995a), pp. 268, 271.

    1. By contrast, the Kennedy administration's “War on Poverty” programs of the 1960s allocated federal funds to groups attempting to ameliorate the social conditions—especially “blocked opportunities”—that were believed to give rise to crime and delinquency (see Rosenbaum, 1988, p. 352).

    2. Others argue that the ascendance of the crime issue on the local political agenda is a product of the increasing crime rate. To support this argument, researchers point out that the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) data do indeed

    show an increase in crime at the same time that urbanites became more likely to identify crime as an important problem in their communities (see Jacob & Lineberry, 1983). As was discussed in Chapter 2, however, this argument becomes more difficult to sustain if one looks at victimization survey data rather than the estimates provided by the UCR.

    3. For slightly different versions of this argument, see Crawford (1995) and Garland (1996).

    4. For this reason, Garland refers to such appeals to community as part of the process of “responsibilization”—an effort to shift the responsibility for the crime problem away from the state (see Garland, 1996).

    5. A more recent iteration of this theory appears in Kelling and Coles (1996).

    6. For an extended discussion of these and other criticisms of the “broken windows” approach, see Herbert (in press).

    7. This perception may be fairly accurate in the case of burglary, which is emphasized in the Neighborhood Watch literature, but it is a less accurate view for crimes such as homicide, domestic violence, and child abuse.

    8. Research suggests that these perceptions are accurate: Because of increased unemployment, the expansion of the drug trade, and massive levels of incarceration in black communities, kinship networks and community authority figures have been substantially weakened (see Anderson, 1990; Wilson, 1996).

    9. As Shapiro (1997) points out, the existence of this alternative to the criminal justice system is often ignored by victim rights activists, who seek to expand the rights of the victim in criminal proceedings.

    10. Many “restorative justice” programs, for example, seek to replace the current emphasis on punishment with the goal of compensating the victims for the harm done to them.

    11. This announcement came as something of a surprise. In February 1997, following the completion of a sixth federally funded study of needle exchange programs (NEPs) concluding that NEPs helped to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases and do not increase drug use, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala had announced her support for NEPs. Apparently, concerns about being labeled “soft on drugs” led the administration to refuse to lift the federal ban at the last minute (see “Flat Earth AIDS Policy,” 1998; “Inside the Beltway,” 1997).

    1. Among high school seniors, more than 1 in 3 reported marijuana use and 1 in 12 reported use of either PCP (angel dust) or LSD (see Maguire & Pastore, 2002, Tables 3.72, 3.91, 3.92).

    2. The NIDA surveys are of households and thus ignore institutionalized people and the homeless, among whom are a disproportionate number of drug addicts. Therefore, it may be the case that during the 1980s, drug dealing and

    using became more flagrant or destructive among the hard-core addict population. A rise in the number of cocaine-related emergency room visits coinciding with the 1980s crack epidemic suggests this possibility (see Currie, 1993; Tonry, 1995). The drug war, however, was not a “surgical strike” aimed at this relatively small portion of the population of a handful of major cities. Instead, it was aimed more or less indiscriminately at all users and dealers, especially, as we shall see, at those who reside in minority, inner-city neighborhoods.

    3. Tonry (1995, chap. 3) reviews a wider range of surveys and arrives at the same conclusions.

    4. In recent survey years, for example, cocaine use during the past 30 days was reported by 0.8% of white, 1% of black, and 1.1% of Hispanic respondents. Similarly, marijuana use during the past 30 days was reported by 3% of white, 3.5% of black, and 2.8% of Hispanic respondents (Maguire & Pastore, 1997, Tables 3.72, 3.76). Among high school students, ethnic differences are somewhat more pronounced, with black students less likely than their white and Hispanic counterparts to be regular users of cocaine and several other illegal drugs (e.g., see Maguire & Pastore, 1999, Table 3.68).

    5. Notably, the conservatives and civil libertarians converged in their critiques of rehabilitation. Libertarians, however, believed a system of “just punishment” would imprison fewer people for shorter stretches, whereas conservatives viewed “just punishment” as a way to end what they perceived to be the permissiveness of a rehabilitation-oriented prison system. For a discussion of these issues, see Tonry (1996).

    6. Fifty federal judges, many of them conservative Reagan administration appointees, have refused to hear drug cases (Elikann, 1996, p. 97).

    7. Defenders of the harsh penalties for crack argued that the substance was peculiarly destructive, as discussed in Chapter 4. As numerous scholars have pointed out, however, drug prohibition laws have historically derived their impetus from popular anxieties about racial minorities (see Bertram et al., 1996).

    8. To be convicted under the “second strike” provision, only the first felony need be serious (see Clark et al., 1997).

    9. Between 1977 and 1999, 12 people who committed their crimes while they were children were executed in the United States. During the same period, at least 30 mentally retarded prisoners were put to death (Amnesty International, 1998b).

    10. As Peterson and Bailey (1998) conclude in their comprehensive review of the literature,

    the empirical evidence does not support the belief that capital punishment was an effective deterrent for murder in past years. Nor is there any indication that returning to our past execution practices [e.g., executing people more often and more quickly] would have any deterrent effect on the current homicide problem. (p. 83)

    11. For a review of the literature on deterrence and the death penalty, see Bailey and Peterson (1997).

    12. Notably, as calculated by Cook and Laub (1998), the homicide commission rate for teenage African American males more than tripled between 1985 and 1991. Cook and Laub further point out that, although the share of violent crimes “cleared” by arrest of a juvenile was only slightly higher in 1994 (13%) than in 1975 through 1979 (12%), the proportion of young people in the population was significantly smaller. This observation implies a higher rate of juvenile offending in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    13. The female proportion of the state inmate population grew from 4% to 6%, the Hispanic proportion from 10% to 17%, and the black proportion from 47% to 51%. The proportion of state inmates who are white dropped from 52% to 47% (see Beck, 1999, pp. 47–48; see also Maguire & Pastore, 2002, Tables 6.29 and 6.3).

    14. On annual prison census days, the percentage of state prisoners serving time for violent crimes dropped from 59% in 1980 to 47% in 1995 (see Beck, 1999, p. 49). The difference between these two measures of prison populations is due to the tendency of violent offenders to serve longer terms and therefore to accumulate within prisons.

    15. “On any day, almost 200,000 people behind bars—more than 1 in 10 of the total—are known to suffer from schizophrenia, manic depression or major depression, the three most severe mental illnesses” (Butterfield, 1998, p. A1). Similarly, Elliott Currie (1998) notes that 7% to 15% of California jail inmates and 8% to 20% of prison inmates are seriously mentally ill.

    16. Comparable findings have been reported by government-sponsored panels of social scientists in both Canada and Great Britain; for details, see Tonry (1996), p. 137.

    17. On the war on drugs, see Baum (1996); Bertram et al. (1996); Currie (1993); Gray (1998).

    18. For more on the “prison-industrial complex” perspective, see Chambliss (1994); Christie (1993); Donziger (1996).

    1. This is true not just in the United States but in other industrialized countries as well. For further evidence of this association, see Currie (1998), pp. 125–130.

    2. It is sometimes argued that poor children in the United States are poor compared to their middle- and upper-class counterparts, but not all that poor. In fact, poor children in the United States are considerably worse off than poor children in other industrialized countries (see Currie, 1998, p. 121).

    3. See Chapters 15–17 in Reinarman and Levine (1997a).

    4. By contrast, alcohol is involved in about 10,000 overdose deaths annually (see Nadlemann, 1997, p. 302).

    5. Since 1965, state and local authorities have made more than 11 million marijuana arrests. Federal authorities also make marijuana arrests, and although the exact number is unknown, there may be as many as 10,000 of these per year. The precise number of marijuana offenders who are currently incarcerated is also unknown. Estimates are that between 12% and 15% of the federal prison population—about 15,000 people—are serving time for marijuana violations, and another 21,000 are serving time in state prisons or jails for such offenses (see Schlosser, 1994; Thomas, 1998).

    6. Similarly, a recent study published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that although higher-income women were more likely to try illegal drugs, poorer women were more likely to be unable to control their use of illegal substances (Califano, 1996, p. A19).

    7. For example, the incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) among children of chronically alcoholic mothers is strongly influenced by the social class of the mother—4.5% of the children of upper-middle-class alcoholics, versus 71% of those of poor alcoholic mothers, were diagnosed with FAS (see Bingol et al., 1987).

    8. The RAND Corporation study is reported in Sentencing Project (n.d.-h).

    9. Decriminalization is not the same thing as legalization. With the former, the state reduces the official penalties for drug law violations, deempha-sizes drug law enforcement, and focuses on dealers rather than users. By contrast, legalizing drugs would involve repealing the laws that prohibit the use or sale of controlled substances. Each of these options offers certain advantages and disadvantages. If a policy of decriminalization (combined with the legalization of marijuana) were adopted, the many people whose main problem is drug addiction would not be incarcerated, and the money currently spent to imprison them could be spent on drug abuse prevention and treatment programs. However, under decriminalization, the drugs themselves would remain illegal, and their price would therefore remain artificially high. This means that the drug trade would continue to be regulated through the use of violence (although addressing the complex array of social and economic problems facing urban communities might reduce the numbers of people who are drawn into the drug trade). Furthermore, because drugs other than marijuana would remain illegal, they would be impossible to regulate, and the secondary problems this causes—accidental overdoses, poisonings—would continue. By contrast, the legalization of drugs would eradicate the black market for drugs and, presumably, the violence it spawns. By legalizing drugs, the government would also make possible their regulation (just as alcohol is currently regulated by state and local governments). Furthermore, under legalization, drugs could be taxed, which would generate revenues that could be used to fund drug treatment and prevention (see Nadlemann, 1997; Reinarman & Levine, 1997a, pp. 214–224).

    10. Nationwide, parolees returned to prison comprised 12% of all state prison admissions in 1974 but 29% of state prison admissions in 1989 (see Irwin & Austin, 1997, chap. 5; Simon, 1993, p. 210).

    11. Both experimental and statistical studies suggest that the employment prospects of job applicants with no criminal record are far better than those of people who were convicted and incarcerated. See Western and Beckett (1999) for a review of these studies. There is also evidence that offenders who are incarcerated are more likely to reoffend than are similar offenders who are convicted but sentenced to probation (see Petersilia & Peterson, 1986).

    12. Studies reporting that rehabilitation does not work often group all rehabilitation programs together and, as a result, do not differentiate between successful and unsuccessful programs. By contrast, studies that examine the impact of particular rehabilitation programs suggest that some of these are successful in reducing recidivism (see Cullen, Van Voorhis, & Sundt, 1996).

    13. This study also found no correlation between technical violations and new criminal offenses, a finding that challenges the widespread practice of incarcerating those who violate the technical conditions of probation.

    14. This success was contingent on the program being fully implemented (see Currie, 1998, p. 168).

    15. In 1994, more than half of all states reported that they had made cuts in or eliminated inmate education programs. The 1994 Crime Bill eliminated federal funding for prisoner education. As a result, the number of state prison inmates enrolled in postsecondary education declined from 38,000 to 21,000 (in a population of nearly 1 million) (see Currie, 1998, p. 169).

    16. Between 1990 and 1997, the proportion of state prison inmates who received drug treatment declined from 24.5% to 9.7%. Over the same years, the proportion who had been drug users at the time of arrest increased from 50% to 57% (Butterfield, 1999).

    17. There is evidence that the ex-convicts' ability to find work or obtain economic assistance reduces rates of recidivism (see Berk & Rauma, 1987).

    18. About 70% of all homicide cases known to the police involve firearms. And although only about one third of all guns in circulation are handguns, handguns are used in about three fourths of all deaths caused by firearms (see Zimring & Hawkins, 1997, p. 199).

    19. Although serious assaults with knives and other cutting instruments occur about as frequently as serious assaults with firearms, the latter are about five times as likely to result in death (see Zimring & Hawkins, 1997, p. 199).

    20. On the importance of guns in the production of high homicide rates and the need for effective gun control, see Zimring and Hawkins (1997). Of course, there are those who argue that widespread gun ownership reduces crime and violence by deterring would-be criminals. One study purporting to demonstrate this examined crime rates in 10 states that passed legislation allowing people to carry concealed weapons between 1977 and 1992. According to this study, the rate of murder, rape, and aggravated assault dropped in these 10 states after the passage of these laws. The author argues that these drops are a result of would-be criminals being deterred from committing crimes when the would-be victim just might have a pistol in her purse (see Lott, 1998). However, critics point out that very few people actually carry concealed weapons in these states and that the deterrent effect of this practice would therefore be minimal. Furthermore, cross-cultural research suggests that rates of lethal violence are lower in societies characterized by few—not many—guns (see Zimring and Hawkins, 1997). Thus, there is reason to suspect that the reported correlation between right-to-carry laws and declining levels of crime is a spurious one.

    21. In Boston, police efforts to seize guns were combined with community outreach programs aimed at enhancing opportunities for youth and diffusing gang violence. Shortly after this program was adopted, levels of violence declined significantly—although other cities in Massachusetts also experienced declining levels of violence (see Currie, 1998, p. 179).

    22. In 1974, the city of Baltimore offered $50 for handguns and eventually bought about 8,400 handguns—about one fourth of the number estimated to exist in the city (see Walker, 1994, p. 187).

    23. According to Harcourt (1998), the number of complaints of police brutality received by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board rose from 3,580 in 1993 to 5,550 in 1997.


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    About the Authors

    Katherine Beckett, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and in the Law, Societies & Justice Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. She teaches courses on law, culture, drugs, social control, and terrorism. She is the author of Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics (1997), as well as numerous articles and chapters.

    Theodore Sasson, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Middlebury College in Vermont. He teaches courses in criminology, political sociology, and social theory. He is the author of Crime Talk: How Citizens Construct a Social Problem (1995), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters.

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