Two weeks ago, the Daily Caller obtained and released an internal document from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding violence prevention. The document concerns a guidance that the agency plans to roll out later this month, which disregards traditional law-enforcement methods like incarcerating offenders and advocates instead for an approach to public safety that would “work to prevent violence by addressing the underlying conditions that contribute to violence.” Among the conditions driving community violence, per the document, are “concentrated poverty, limited educational or employment opportunities, and racial inequity.”

The idea that spending money on education, employment, housing, and health can reduce crime is consistent with received wisdom on the progressive left. The best way to fight crime, progressives argue, is to divest from enforcement-centric responses and reinvest those resources to address crime’s “root causes.”

The root-cause approach has a straightforward appeal. Why treat symptoms when you can eradicate the disease? But even if we assume that we know what the root causes of crime are and that we know how to address them—very big “ifs”—the nature of such a project is necessarily long-term. This presents an issue, since the public expects, and is entitled to, short-term solutions to crime. After all, people are being victimized right now. Their lives, property, and sense of security in their communities demand immediate and substantial relief, which only the criminal-justice system can provide.

Serious scholars recognize that policing, prosecution, and incarceration—along with other, less formal means of social control—work. Whether it’s expanding police patrols, concentrating resources in crime hot spots, hiring additional officers, subjecting repeat offenders to enhanced sentencing, or putting high-frequency and violent offenders behind bars, decades of scholarship have made clear that crime can be substantially cut through enforcement-centric initiatives aimed at deterring and incapacitating criminals. In other words, the oft-repeated claim that we cannot arrest, prosecute, or incarcerate ourselves out of a crime problem is nonsense.

Since the “Great Crime Decline” of the 1990s, however, many Americans have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the proactive law-enforcement that produced that decline—in which police, prioritizing order maintenance, cracked down on the low-level offenses that create an environment for more serious ones. They note that those tactics raised the incarceration rate and increased police-citizen interactions that sometimes involved force. Their discomfort with those tactics contributed to the popularity of “alternative” approaches to remedy the conditions—such as poverty—that supposedly push offenders into a life of crime.

We know that the overwhelming number of violent offenders have low incomes. But this fact, on its own, does not establish poverty as a cause of crime. After all, most poor people aren’t criminals. Most crimes are committed by a small slice of the population—much smaller than the number of individuals in poverty. Further, some of the most serious violent crimes—including murder, rape, and aggravated assault—usually have no pecuniary motive. And crime trends haven’t neatly tracked socioeconomic shifts. During the concluding years of the Great Depression, when a staggering two-thirds of Americans lived below the poverty line, violent crime rates were falling. Poverty did not change substantially in New York between 1990 and 2017, when homicides in the city plummeted from 2,262 annually to just 292. Nor did homicides spike during the Great Recession of 2008. That offenders tend to be poor may simply reflect antisocial dispositions and habits that also undermine socioeconomic success. Nevertheless, many in the criminal-justice-reform camp have proposed massive wealth redistribution as a solution to crime, despite the flaws in this reasoning.

Competing theories of crime causation offer stronger supportive evidence. Coauthor Mangual, for example, has cowritten a recent paper that found a correlation between crime rates and family structure in U.S. cities. The study found that after controlling for such factors as race, poverty, and education, cities above the median share of single-parent-headed households suffered substantially higher rates of crime, violence, and homicide. One potential explanation is that children raised by single parents are substantially more likely to have adverse experiences associated with psychological conditions, such as antisocial personality disorder, that are prevalent among criminal offenders.

That theory, too, has counterexamples. In the 1990s, crime sank even as increasing numbers of children were raised by a single parent (or by neither biological parent). This illustrates a key lesson about the causes of crime: even as a supposed cause becomes more widespread, crime rates may not necessarily rise in turn. Why? Probably because the crime-causing effects—whether those associated with poverty or with being raised by a single parent—were overridden by the crime-suppressing effects of enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, the criminal-justice system expanded dramatically: cities hired more police, cops made more arrests, states built more prisons, judges imposed longer sentences, and more. Those policies offset the impact on crime of fatherless child-rearing and other such factors. The end result was a huge crime decline, which had a profoundly positive impact on American society from both a public health and economic perspective.

Progressives need to confront a truth backed by a trove of research: strengthening the criminal-justice system is the only effective, short-term solution to our crime problem. Nothing else comes close. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon approaches that seek to reduce crime in other ways, such as by improving land use in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Nor should we discontinue anti-poverty efforts or stop encouraging the “success sequence”—finishing school, getting a full-time job, and getting married before having kids. But we must reject the notion that policies intended to solve perennial, unyielding social problems can ever replace the real solutions to crime.

Photo: kali9/iStock


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