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Crime in the U.S., Then and Now

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Crime in the U.S., Then and Now

10 Blocks podcast September 1, 2021
Public safety

Barry Latzer joins Brian Anderson to discuss crime and punishment in the United States, today’s debates over criminal justice, and his new book, The Roots of Violent Crime in America.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Barry Latzer. He’s a professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Barry is also the author most recently of The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age Through the Great Depression, which is published by LSU University Press. Barry, thanks very much for joining us and for continuing to write for City Journal. We always welcome you and glad to have you on the show.

Barry Latzer: My pleasure, Brian. It’s great to be with you.

Brian Anderson: This new book is a sequel to your previous volume, which was called The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, which was published by Encounter a few years ago, which covered the crime wave of the mid to late 20th century. And that was a very comprehensive book where you looked at a number of possible drivers of crime, the economy, the state of the criminal justice system and culture. Your cultural argument in the book was sophisticated and nuanced. But in essence, you were arguing that the great migration was behind much of the crime wave as an emphasis on conflict from southern culture set the stage for the gang violence that was occurring in cities in the '70s and '80s.

This new book goes back a bit further to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. If we could focus a bit on this cultural question, what are some of the lessons you gleaned while writing this new volume? How did the cultural legacy of the '80s right up to the '30s from the waves of migration in Prohibition to the Great Depression, World War I, how did these things affect crime rates, and how does what happened, then, have implications for today’s crime?

Barry Latzer: I think it drew the cultural explanation into even sharper focus, Brian, because what I found was, when we looked at the homicide rates primarily and other violent crime rates of different groups who had either migrated or immigrated to the United States, we found sharply different rates of crime. And yet they were all in the same terrible circumstances, discriminated against, impoverished, living in slum locations, having a very rough time of it in the United States or in the North, in the case of African-Americans who had migrated. How do we explain the differences in violent crime rates from groups that are so similar in their circumstances? To me, this reinforces the cultural argument there must be some explanation based on the characteristics, if you will, of the group. None of this is inherent or biological, it isn’t even racial really, it’s just happenstance that race and culture are fused in the United States because of our history of enslaving blacks.

But it’s really a cultural argument that I’m making. And culture just refers here to the beliefs and behaviors that are distinctive to a group. So when blacks undertook the great migration, as it’s called, and especially right after World War I, when lots of jobs opened up in the north, what the historians call a culture of honor in the south, we find this prevalent among African-Americans. And so when blacks migrated north, they took this honor culture with them and we see very high rates of black-on-black violent crime in the North among African-Americans. And this really sets the pattern for the United States for the entire 20th century and even into the 21st century. I’m not arguing that all crime among African-Americans is attributable to the honor culture, but certainly when we see disputes between African-Americans over petty issues, over small and inconsequential matters, and when we see those disputes turn violent, to me, this is the quintessential illustration of these kinds of cultural explanations, this honor culture behavior.

Brian Anderson: So you’re rejecting the idea that crime is largely driven by economic conditions, which has been a prevalent view in criminology and really in the broader social debate about crime. You don’t believe that material deprivation is behind people acting badly.

Barry Latzer: Well, I would say this, I’m qualifying the explanation. I recognize, as I think everybody does, that the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by low-income people. What I think is not understood is the differences among different low income groups. Here’s an illustration, I devoted a whole chapter of the roots book, chapter eight of the book, comparing the crime of Italians and Jews who arrived in New York City at roughly the same time between 1900 and World War I. So here we have two immigrant groups, both obviously culturally distinctive from one another, culturally distinctive from most Americans, landing in the same place at the same time in miserable circumstances, living in slums, discriminated against, and yet when I look at the data I find that the Italian immigrants had very high violent crime rates and the Jewish immigrants did not. And we’re not talking about wealthy Jews, we’re talking about impoverished Jews.

So how do we explain this? Same location, same time span, same miserable conditions and yet one group has much higher violent crime rates than the other. To me, this is a perfect illustration of the cultural argument. And when I tracked back into Europe to see what the crime rates were of these groups in Europe, I found that the Southern Italians had some of the highest violent crime rates in Europe and the Jews had relatively low violent crime rates in Europe.

So in other words, this reinforced the cultural argument because the culture developed in Europe and then was carried over to the United States. So I recognize that poor people do the vast bulk of violent crime. And I view it this way, the more affluent people have an inoculation, a vaccine, if you will, against doing violence because they stand to lose a great deal by engaging in violent behavior. They could lose their jobs, they could lose their families, they lose their reputation in the community. They have everything to lose, but young low-income males don’t worry about these losses. They don’t really risk very much by engaging in violent behavior. So I think the explanation then for violence is partly cultural, partly class or economic, however one wants to term it, but the economic explanation alone is not sufficient. And we know this because of the different behaviors of different impoverished groups.

Brian Anderson: The cultural explanation, what are the implications it might have for how to tackle crime? The prevalent argument for a long time in United States was that crime, since it was economically rooted, it could only be fought by attacking the root causes of crime. So in effect you had to transform society, get rid of inequality, end poverty for crime to be brought under control. Now, I think we proved that wasn’t the case through policies in the '90s and 2000s but I wonder what your view is about the implications of the cultural argument for policymakers.

Barry Latzer: In the short run and in the medium run, we need to use criminal justice policies to control crime. That is arresting people who do bad crimes and imprisoning them. There are smarter ways and less smart ways to do that, but that’s a whole other debate. If we’re talking about reducing, let’s say, violent crime among African-Americans or among low income Hispanic groups, to me, the answer is that people are just going to have to be patient. Like the Irish and Italian immigrants before them, after several generations of better education, of the development of good skills to enable the group to advance, they’re going to move up to the middle class and when they do, their violent crime rates are going to diminish.

So in a sense, Brian, I don’t disagree with the leftist implication that moving to the middle class reduces crime, I just disagree on the means and methods that need to be used. I think that this involves a multi-generational education and skills acquisition process. That’s the way it was for the Irish who immigrated in the 19th century. That’s the way it was for the Italians who immigrated in the early 20th century and nowadays we don’t even think about the Irish and Italians in terms of crime, except I guess the Italians because of those mafia movies. But we don’t even think about ordinary Italians and violent crime anymore, to say nothing of the Irish. So I think this is our future. I’m very optimistic. Unlike many people, I’m very optimistic about the reduction of crime among African-Americans, but this is not an instant thing. This is not going to happen because of some forcible redistribution of wealth. This is going to happen over generations through education and skills acquisition.

Brian Anderson: I’d like to ask a question about the methodology that you employed in writing this book. We take for granted today the ability to look up data on crime across the United States, but the FBI’s uniform crime reporting program really didn’t get underway until the late '20s, 1929, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics wasn’t founded until 1979. So I wonder if you could explain how you compiled the statistics in this book, which has quite a few of them, and had some sense of their accuracy.

Barry Latzer: Prior to the 20th century, Brian, you really have no national data. There’s some prison data, but prison data can’t be used to measure crime trends because imprisonments are more a function of what the police do and what the courts do and what they do really doesn’t necessarily depend on the amount of crime, it might depend on the number of police, for instance, or on whether or not courts are acquitting or convicting people. So the imprisonment data are really not that reliable for determining crime trends. So the only thing to rely upon, and crime historians use this, for the 19th century is homicide mortality data where you have coroners, they’re now called medical examiners, really calculating the number of people who died at the hands of another human being, that’s a homicide. Whether that results in a criminal prosecution and conviction or not is another question, but usually homicides are a good indicator of violent crime.

So, that’s what we have for the 19th century and that’s all we have. And those are not even national, no one ever tried to gather up all the data from local counties throughout the United States. Moving to the 20th century, we can do better because the mortality data was collected by the Census Bureau and so from the 1920s on, we have national homicide mortality figures, and those data are pretty good, they’re pretty reliable. The big flaw in this is obvious, that tells you about murder but it doesn’t tell you about robbery or assault or rape or any other crime of violence. So we just have to really use newspaper reports, local arrest data and draw inferences from the homicide mortality data about violent crime, generally. But as you say, starting in the '30s, especially in the late '30s, the FBI started gathering police data and that really improved things greatly. And then by the 1970s, we started using criminal victimization interview data and that was the final, big improvement in the analysis of crime.

Brian Anderson: Recently, what is in my view a strange argument has emerged on the left that policing in the United States is basically something that is grown out of slave patrols. I wonder what your take is on that new argument.

Barry Latzer: I mean, this is almost totally false. The modern police department developed because the law enforcement systems in the big cities of the North were really inadequate prior to the creation of police departments. So, this is an urban northern phenomenon. By this I mean the creation of police departments. Slave patrols were essentially state-sanctioned groups of white men who hunted down and apprehended runaway slaves. This was done in the rural South prior, of course, to emancipation. Whereas, police departments were a response to the increase in urban crime and that was, by the way, due mainly to the Irish immigration in the 19th century.

So, the first real urban police department is developed in New York, actually in 1845. London was first and New York copied London, but New York was the first in the United States. And then in the 1850s, the other big cities followed suit; New Orleans, Cincinnati, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore all developed police departments in the 1850s usually along the lines of the New York model. New York became the model for policing. This had nothing to do with slavery or slave patrols. This was all about urban crime and the inability of the older system to deal with the urban crime. Whereas, the slave patrols were really rural and dealt with the situation in the south prior to emancipation. So it’s really apples and oranges, Brian. I mean, as far as I could see, they have nothing to do with one another.

Brian Anderson: You’ve got another book coming out soon, a more popular book called The Myth of Overpunishment: A Defense of the American Justice System and a Proposal to Reduce Incarceration While Protecting the Public. I wonder if you could just give us an anticipation of what the argument of that book is.

Barry Latzer: I think this one will be of more general interest. Not that the crime histories are not interesting, but I think this one is going to be so timely because it’s addressing the whole question of what is come to be known as mass incarceration. This book will be in three parts, Brian. The first part is going to be a history, but a brief history, of punishment in the United States. From the colonial period when punishments were by and large bodily punishments—whipping, for instance, using pillory and stocks, using the death penalty, and so you have corporal punishment. Once we had the American Revolution, this gave way to imprisonment and the development of the prison, but prisons back then were quite different than prisons now. And one of the big points of the book is that we see the evolution of the system from a rather harsh and definitely racist system into a rather lenient system that repudiates racism.

So, this is the point of part one of the book. The second part of the book is really a critique of the mass incarceration arguments, which are essentially calling for deprisonisation, the removal of what I consider very dangerous people from prison. And in fact, some have even argued for eliminating prisons altogether, even though, Brian, they have no real replacement for the prison. In the third part of the book I argue we should undertake an expansion, a radical expansion, really of the use of electronic monitoring, especially for people who are released from prison on parole. These are dangerous people with very high recidivism rates. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 83% were arrested again for another crime after being released—83%, that is, of all the prisoners who were released were tracked and they were rearrested within nine years of their release. Most were rearrested within a year.

So, these are repeaters. These are dangerous people. And I argue it’s time to use technology, which we use for so many different things and very effectively. It’s time to use technology to restrain these people who commit multiple crimes and multiple times. We can use the technology to monitor them and thus create real disincentives to crime. I’d also like to see it done more with people put on probation, and I’d like to see electronic monitoring even used for people who were arrested and not yet convicted of a crime as a way really of reducing the jail population. Just releasing people, which seems to be the current trend, and not monitoring them adequately because the probation officers and parole officers are overwhelmed with their caseloads doesn’t seem to me to be a sensible solution, especially when you have people who recidivate all the time, but electronic monitoring would really discourage these people from committing additional crimes. That would protect the public and ultimately it will actually reduce incarceration. So I think this is one of those win, win, win arguments. And that’s the argument I make in the third part of the book.

Brian Anderson: It sounds very interesting. When is the release date exactly?

Barry Latzer: I just checked this morning actually. Amazon says September, but I don’t know where they got that from, but when I checked with the publisher they said probably not until January of 2022. I hope it’ll be a little earlier than that, but let’s figure sometime in the winter, this coming winter.

Brian Anderson: It sounds very, very interesting and important. His new book is The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age Through the Great Depression, and the forthcoming book is called The Myth of Overpunishment. Barry Latzer, very glad to have you on the show. Don’t forget to check out Barry’s work on the City Journal website, that’s www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description and keep an eye out for a forthcoming feature by Barry in the fall issue of our quarterly magazine. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @CityJournal and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. And as usual, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Barry, thanks very much. Great to hear from you and look forward to the new book as well.

Barry Latzer: Thank you, Brian. This is a great pleasure. Thanks so much.

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Photo by Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images

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