29 March 2019

And So the Pendulum Swings

A few days ago I happened upon this article about how the District Attorney for King County, New York is softening criminal punishment in his county.  I've never read anything by City Journal before, but my reaction was something along the lines of they're just noticing this now? It's not new. For years now the pendulum has been swinging away from enforcing the law through incarceration to protect citizens and into fixing the defendants or de-escalating enforcement. The City Journal calls this a race to the bottom. I think it's a combination of (first and foremost) complacency of the general population, economic factors, and attempts to make things better within practical boundaries. Will it work? We don't know and long term affects of this kind of trend never occur overnight so we are unlikely to know for a couple decades.

Those of us who are old enough remember when the big cities were perceived as crime-ridden urban wastelands (yes I know some few still are). In popular culture this was reflected in the seventies through shoot-'em-all, lone hero dramas like the Dirty Harry and Death Wish movie franchises and the blaxploitation films showing a crime ridden world (strangely, blaxploitation males tended to be more a part of that world while blaxploitation women tended to fight against it: Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Coffy). In the eighties there was outright despair reflected in Fort Apache, The Bronx and a more day to day bleakness shown in the series Hill Street Blues. All the while news casts were constantly hitting us over the heads with real news about crime and murder rates. The world was not a good place and the general population was upset, scared, and worried to the point that it wanted something done.

Then came proactive policing. Police departments, beginning with the NYPD, started enforcing "broken windows" policies and that became a doorway through which much more robust enforcement entered. And it was effective:

Found here
Found here
Notice the very significant drops in crime rates and murders throughout the 90's after proactive policing began.

Of course, there was a lot of screaming about this from various civil rights and interest groups. The academics also hated it. I can't remember how many times I heard or saw the mantra "correlation does not equal causation" which is true as far as it goes. However, when correlation occurs many, many times in many, many places the mantra starts to ring hollow.

[Side Story] I was at college and a visiting lecturer was giving a lecture "debunking" broken windows He first pointed out the drop in crime rates and then uttered the "correlation does not mean causation" truism. Finally, he offered his explanation for the drop in crime rates which was that young males were the primary offenders and they were aging out so that they weren't violating the law.

I was sitting with a bunch of my (young male) fraternity brothers listening to this lecture and we start looking at each other confused/bemused. We're all thinking the same thing and finally the guy sitting two down from me stage whispers to us all, "Um, I get that males get older, but don't we tend to make new ones every year to replace them?"[/Side Story]

Of course, proactive policing always had the potential to cross over into unconstitutional behavior and it did more than once. After all unconstitutional behavior can be good policy if the aim of the policy is to keep the peace. For instance, it's clearly unconstitutional for officers to stop and frisk a group of young men just because they are a group of young men in an area with a gang presence or a higher crime rate. However, if members of the 8th Street Knife Killers Gang know they are going to get frisked every couple days and go to jail if they carry firearms, they tend to not carry them as much. It might have limited effect at stopping premeditated, well-planned crimes, but it tends to cut down on impulse crimes; it's hard to shoot a guy from another gang who is taking his grandmother to her doctor on disputed turf when you don't have a gun. Nevertheless, no matter how good that policy argument is it doesn't render the frisk constitutional.

Not that it mattered. The voting public wanted. something. done. NOW! They did not care about the niceties of constitutional law. They wanted a safer world and safer lives. And they got it. Police got proactive, legislatures passed tougher laws, and courts sometimes bent themselves into pretzels to find most of it constitutional. Et voilĂ  crime rates dropped.

Things quieted. Despite the best efforts of the 24 hour news channels, it slowly sank into the hindbrains of the voting public that things had gotten safer. The voting class started moving back into cities (remember the squawking about gentrification?). They started feeling comfortable and safe. They started to assume that things have always been and will always be as safe as they currently are. They lost the fear and settled into their lives - assuming the protection of police as normal and losing interest.

Of course, things never actually quiet down. When one segment, albeit a large one, settles down others fill the void with their voices. Remember those civil rights groups, interest groups, and academics mentioned above? They never went away and their voices started to sound a lot louder once the general public settled into satisfied, protected complacency.

At first these voices weren't treated much better than they were before, but they persisted and eventually the general population - satisfied from its perception of continued safety - began to take note and agree. The civil rights groups gained purchase first as they always had the most cogent argument; as noted above proactive policing tends to move into techniques which are effective, but not always constitutional. More important to the politicians writing and enforcing laws, the interest groups started to push for things to be done to decrease enforcement because enforcement impacted their kith and kin. Of course, the academics provided rationales for most all of this. As always when this sort of thing occurs the messages which came out are mixed: "Leave us alone", "Leave them alone", "Work with the community", "Fix them don't just throw them away", etc. 

These were the desired (and somewhat contradictory) results. However, agitation for them wouldn't carry the day alone. What finally carried the day were the magical words that every person running a county, city, town, or State loves to hear: "We can save you money."

Scratch the surface of a rehabilitation program and you will find underneath a claim that it will cost less money than incarceration. Will it? That's often hard to actually prove one way or the other. Still, the combination of "We can save you money" combined with the moral grounding of "We can fix" greased the pivot and the pendulum, having been pushed as high as it could on the "protect the citizens" & "punish the offender" side started sliding back down toward "fix them" and nonactive policing.

As the pendulum picked up momentum the "We can save you money" argument became less and less a factor and less incarceration, less supervision, less police enforcement became considered good unto themselves. And so follow those who rely on votes to keep their jobs. After all, that's why we set up our democratic republic. Those people who hold office, but don't follow the will of the people are supposed to lose their offices eventually. And so, it's not surprising that even prosecutors start sounding like public defenders after a while.

How long will this trend last? Unknown. These things tend to go in cycles that are decades long. On the other hand, in the modern interconnected world people gain knowledge of problems much quicker than they did when they were relying on things to catch the eye of national news monopolies all based in NYC. Want to see the downtowns of cities on the West Coast be taken over by mobs while the police stand by and do nothing? Want to see stories about how San Francisco's homeless population has grown so huge and undisturbed that its waste is making the city unliveable? Want to see the urban wasteland that is Detroit? How about stories that Chicago is headed down the same hole? You can easily find all of them on the Internet. How much weight or truth you choose to assign them may be a different matter, but they are easily found.  

Nevertheless, the momentum of the moment remains firmly in the direction away from "protect the citizens" and "punish the offender." It is likely to remain so for some time.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you post such a long article on this topic without mentioning the removal of lead from gasoline, which has basically an identical correspondence to the long drop in the crime rate (as well as to the rise-before-the-drop, in the early 1960s).

I take it your main point in writing this was to describe (as you see them) the sociopolitical mechanics (e.g. "were perceived as") of the 'pendulum' and its current velocity.

But to the degree you're making a claim about causation (e.g. "and it was effective:"), you'd be more persuasive if you addressed in some manner the competing theories. (Besides leaded gasoline, another example is the end of broken windows policing in cities like NYC, with no subsequent increase in crime rates.)

Ken Lammers said...

Oh, come on, you can come up with better correlations than unleaded gas. Orange juice prices went up from about $3.50 per gallon to about $4.50 across the 90's. Milk rose from $2.15 to $2.79 during the same period. Beer rose from $2.13 a pint to $2.88. Clearly, during the 90's the increased lack of hydration caused by rising prices led to people being weak and unable to commit murder or other crimes - it had nothing to do with the amount of lead in gasoline.

This, of course, is the problem with all Social Studies. You can provide evidence which appears to show a connection between a putative causal factor and a known result, but you can never prove anything. The final bastion is always unassailable: correlation does not prove causation. While proactive policing may have appeared to be successful in many, many places, the hypothesis can never be proven. And in that fact those that oppose it find solace as well as room for their various theories which they can use to publish articles and give lectures.

And NYPD may have stopped using the phrase "broken windows", but it has leaned into proactive policing in other ways. Compstat is NYC's baby and it isn't going away. As well, the every so often grilling of every precinct commander about what's going wrong in his area of responsibility is one heck of an incentive to go out there and fix things. People used to being in command don't like it when they face being put on the spot and made to look bad by their superiors because of poor control of criminal activity.Remember, I said broken windows opened the door to proactive policing; it's not the only aspect of it.

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't have said "broken windows." *Stop and frisk* decreased in NYC by something like 85%, with no important effect on the crime rate. I don't know what else you mean by 'proactive policing' but that is what I had in mind.

Meanwhile your flip comparisons of orange juice or whatever to the leaded gasoline hypothesis is...I don't know what, but it's certainly not serious. There's independent scientific basis to credit the latter (i.e. the effect of lead on developing brains is not exactly an unknown here).

Can you honestly produce this correlation for orange juice?


Ken Lammers said...

See today's post.