The people's voice of reason

Accounting for Crime

This article is the second in a series dealing with counterintuitive thoughts about how we deal with crime. I previously pointed out that the solution to the problem of crime will not result from stronger law enforcement, but from stronger moral formation. Correct moral formation occurs as a result of interaction with the family, the peer group, churches, schools and the entire community. Peer groups play a particularly important role. And now there is TV and social media. A comedian may have captured the thought when he said “We’ve got to come up with a better class of criminals”.

Now we turn to the measurement of success in our efforts to deal with crime. What kind of statistics would show success in decreasing the amount of criminal activity? The measurement of the success of criminal law should reflect on the crimes that are not committed rather than the crimes that are committed. Criminal law is accomplishing its goals when there are no murders, rapes, robberies, deaths, and other crimes. But it is difficult to make a list of undesired events that didn’t happen! It is much easier to talk about and “measure” the success in solving the crimes that do happen than it is to document the fact that they are not happening. It is much easier for those persons in charge of law enforcement to talk and take pride in the cases that are solved than to boast of cases that do not happen. A reported “decrease in the crime rate” is a comparison of the number of crimes that are actually reported during one time period to those reported in another time period. There is always the problem of crimes that don’t get reported, simply because it is not worth the effort.

If I am not mistaken, the Law Enforcement Planning Agency, back in the 1970’s, was a program instigated by the federal government. In some instances it actually made funding available based on the number of cases prosecuted.

Certainly, law enforcement needs all the funding that it can get.

Nevertheless, funding that is based on the number of prosecutions is more likely to lead to a higher rate of incarceration than to a reduced rate of crime. What we need is a program promoting real success- the crimes that do not happen.

The rate of crime and the rate of incarceration are not necessarily drawing on the same statistics. Length of sentence, the likelihood of a crime resulting in incarceration, the criminalization of activities that had not previously been declared crimes, the political pressure on law enforcement, legislatures, and judges to be tough all add to the rate of incarceration. It is not at all clear that the result of any of these factors is an actual decrease in crime. Those factors that affect the rate of incarceration do not address the primary cause of crime: inadequate moral development of the individuals involved.

I remember an instance in my courtroom in which a representative from the Center for Disease Control presented testimony. Off the record, I asked whether the Center for Disease Control has a computerized statistics database for measuring health of the nation rather than reporting the number of diseases that occur. Although the answer was not entirely clear, it is clear that CDC sees health, not disease, as its goal. Although it is important to measure the number of diseases that are occurring and to keep statistics, but it is also important to have some method of measuring health as opposed to disease. That is the same statistical challenge that exists for bad social behavior. Moral conduct, rather than crime, must be the goal in dealing with the illness of society.

The approach advocated in this column is consistent with the mainline Christian tradition. The mainline Christian tradition is the promotion of good as opposed to destruction of evil. Ancient Mid-Eastern religions believed that the cosmos is involved in an eternal conflict between good and evil—light and darkness. In the Christian tradition, the focus is always on the light. Darkness is simply the absence of light. All of this is a complex abstract way of saying that the destruction of evil does not produce good. In a word, the Christian message is obey the law of love and do whatever you want to do. “Whatever you want to do” will never be crime.

Complex social issues bear on the tremendous increase in the rate of incarceration over the past forty years. We will continue to explore those issues in future articles.


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