Capital Crimes: The Political Economy of Crime in America

Article excerpt

The "War" on Crime

American politicians have been declaring victory in the war against crime at least since Richard Nixon said in 1972 that "[c] rime ... [is] finally beginning to go back down ... [because] we have a remarkable record on the law-and-order issues, with crime legislation ... and narcotics bills." In other words, crime declines because the government passes laws and spends money; larger prisons, more police, fewer civil liberties, and tougher punishments are winning the war on crime.

There is no question that more stringent laws and larger expenditures are the government's strategy. Federal, state and local spending for law enforcement jumped from six billion dollars in 1968 to 120.2 billion dollars in 1996, and may top two hundred billion dollars by the 2004 presidential election. And these numbers don't include the 210 billion dollars spent by businesses and individuals on security systems, insurance, and other measures to protect themselves from crime. Supporters of all this spending point to the dramatic decline in the number of homicides (from a peak of 24,700 in 1991 to about 16,900 in 1999) and in violent crimes (from a peak of 4.1 million in 1994 to about 2.8 million in 1998) as proof that the war is being won.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with the notion that our law-and-order crusade is winning the war on crime. It isn't true. The crusade was a dismal failure for many years. Violent-crime rates jumped 89 percent between 1972 and 1991, and victimization rates showed little improvement between 1973 and 1991. Even with recent declines in crime, the one trillion dollars spent by law-enforcement agencies in the last thirty-five years only managed to reduce the 1998 homicide rates to the what they were in 1967, when Nixon traveled around the country claiming that "America has become among the most lawless and violent [nations] in the history of free people."

These dismal statistics exclude many of the world's deadliest crimes. While U.S. drug use has declined, levels of addiction remain high and the global drug market continues to expand. Back in 1970, when Nixon declared war on heroin, the entire world produced about one thousand tons of opium a year. By 1973, Nixon was declaring that "we have turned the corner [in the war against drugs]," but opium production continued to increase. Today, global opium production is four times higher than it was in the early 1970s, and United Nations (U.N.) officials estimate that the global drug trade tops three hundred billion dollars.

Similarly depressing statistics can be cited for Nixon's ill-fated war on the mob. Nixon's 1970 Organized Crime Control Bill gave law enforcement agencies new powers to tap phones, trample civil liberties, and invade the privacy of individuals; these tactics were allegedly necessary to defeat organized crime. But it soon became clear that new police powers were not a magic bullet against gangsters. In the mid-1990s, U.N. researchers estimated that powerful organized crime groups--notably the Columbian cartels, the Mexican gangs, the Triads, the Mafia, the Russian crime groups, and the Yakusa--had established international operations that produced over one trillion dollars in revenues and gained control of assets worth over another one trillion dollars.

Then there are the wars Nixon didn't declare. Back in the 1960s, the Kerner Commission argued that police misconduct had played a major role in touching off urban riots in New York, Los Angeles, and other major cities. Today, police brutality and corruption remain serious problems in cities large and small. In Los Angeles, the acquittal of the police who savagely beat Rodney King in 1992 produced one of the worst urban riots in American history and prompted widespread calls for reform. Los Angeles prosecutors are currently investigating another massive police corruption scandal. Officials have been forced to throw out the convictions of more than forty people, and the city may eventually have to pay at least two hundred million dollars in damages to people who had been sent to jail on the basis of fabricated evidence. …