The term “mass exodus” somehow fails to capture the grimness of it. According to a recent article in the Detroit News, the citizens of that city are so frustrated with the seemingly intractable problem of crime that 40 percent say they expect to move in the next five years.
This resigned migration is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving. Not only does the city shrink (1 million people have left over the last half century) and crime swirl unabated, the economic toll is crushing. As reporter Christine MacDonald writes: “Residents overwhelmingly believe the city is on the wrong track and have no faith that city leaders have a plan to turn it around. Crime is by far their biggest worry — even higher than finding a job in a city where some put the true unemployment rate as high as 50 percent.”
As acute as the situation looks in Detroit, crime worries do not appear on the national radar. Kevin Johnson, writing for USA Today, states: “In a presidential election cycle dominated by concerns for a faltering economy and unemployment, crime rated a forgettable asterisk earlier this month in a Gallup Poll, representing less than 1 percent of Americans who believed it was the nation’s most pressing problem.”
Perhaps, as the saying goes, all politics are local. With a national murder rate half what it was 20 years ago, the public disinterest in crime is understandable. Save for those pockets of hyper-violence like Detroit — and my own hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas with a current murder rate approaching seven times the national average — unless you’re in the line of fire, your focus is likely elsewhere.
Speaking to Johnson, Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, noted the absence of Second Amendment debate in the current campaign season. “The gun issue is radioactive in this country for both Democrats and Republicans,” he said.
Corollary to this, we see a drop in national prison population for the first time in decades. According to the most recent government data, the number of inmates is down 1.3 percent, to about 7 million offenders behind bars.
Experts attribute this drop to better public policy. In an interview with National Public Radio’s Michel Martin, Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States, observed, “What’s happening is that they’re realizing that we know so much more today than we did 25, 30 years ago about what actually works to stop that revolving door.”
We have begun as a nation to recognize that “getting tough” on crime has traditionally meant ballooning corrections expenditures despite the proven ineffectiveness of increasingly long sentences. In essence, criminals have gone about their business as usual and the correctional industry “got tough” on the American taxpayer.
Gelb went on to say: “We learned a lot more about what treatment works. We don’t just sit around in a circle and talk about problems. There are cognitive behavioral therapies that teach offenders how to deal with the situations that they find themselves in and how to get out of and avoid those situations.”
In the main, if someone is a burglar to support a drug habit, sending them to prison without sufficiently addressing the underlying addiction only staves off the inevitable resumption of thievery once they’re sprung. “Fix” the addiction and the stealing will abate on its own.
Of course for many this sounds like a soft-on-crime-hippie-love-fest designed to coddle offenders and make them feel good about themselves. Evidence suggests it’s not, but so what if it were? If it interdicts the cycle of reoffending and makes people become productive members of society, who cares that it’s not ankle chains and swing blades?
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org