Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Charles Murray and the NY Times versus the facts on the ground in New York.

One doesn't often think of Charles Murray and the New York Times as being in the same camp on social commentary, but when the subject of the falling crime rate comes up, both give an unhappy response by citing the rising prison population.

Murray warns us not to believe that the falling crime rates indicates any improvement in the condition of the "underclass" -- saying that higher imprisonment rates mask the fact that things are actually getting worse down there...

The crime rate has been dropping for 13 years. But the proportion of young men who grow up unsocialized and who, given the opportunity, commit crimes, has not....

When Ronald Reagan took office, 0.9% of the population was under correctional supervision. That figure has continued to rise. When crime began to fall in 1992, it stood at 1.9%. In 2003 it was 2.4%. Crime has dropped, but criminality has continued to rise...

The ratio of prisoners to crimes that prevailed when Ronald Reagan took office, applied to the number of crimes reported in 2003, corresponds to a prison population of 490,000. The actual prison population in 2003 was 2,086,000, a difference of 1.6 million. If you doubt that criminality has increased, imagine the crime rate tomorrow if today we released 1.6 million people from our jails and prisons.
The Times for its part incoherently considers a falling crime rate accompanying a rising prison population a "paradox". (Gee, how could removing 1.6 million criminals from the street possibly affect the crime rate?) But its gist is the same.

Yet both Murray and the Times ignore a major relevant fact: In New York, where the fall in the crime rate started and crime has fallen the most, the prison population is declining and has been for several years, as has been detailed here previously. New York today actually is closing and selling off excess prison space.

It's really odd that Murray ignores the facts in New York City, which after all is the nation's largest, is where the crime trend reversed first, and where Giuliani instituted and made famous the anti-crime initiatives that have been copied in so many other places since. As for the Times doing so, well, it is supposed to be a New York newspaper.

It's also peculiar that both the Murray and the Times overlook a logical possibility that is consistent with the experience of New York: tougher punishment increases the prison population, which deters future crime, which reduces criminality in the next generation, which reduces the prison population subsequently.

This is not to say Murray is entirely wrong when looking at the big picture, that there isn't a good deal of truth in what he writes. He opens by discussing the situation in New Orleans, where the murder rate is six times that in New York City and which is about as far from New York in quality of executive civic leadership as can be imagined (as the executive agency responses to Katrina and 9/11 pretty much demonstrated).

New York isn't the US. But it's a pretty significant part of the US, especially regarding this issue. So it's strange to see the facts on the ground here, and their implications, so ignored.